Pete Werner might already be emerging as one of Ohio State’s best special teams players after just one game as a regular contributor for the Buckeyes.
The true freshman linebacker from Indianapolis didn’t see any playing time in Ohio State’s first three games of the season. He made his debut for the Buckeyes against UNLV, seeing playing time on both defense and special teams, but only substituted into that game after its outcome was well in hand. In Saturday’s 56-0 win against Rutgers, however, Werner saw regular playing time for the Buckeyes on both kickoffs and on punt block/return attempts, lining up as a first-team player on both special teams units.
Werner ended up being a consistent presence around the football when he was on the field, especially in kickoff coverage, and was named as Ohio State’s special teams player of the game as a result.
No player received more praise than Werner during Ohio State coach Urban Meyer’s latest press conference on Monday.
"One of the most improved players on our team the last couple of weeks," Meyer said of Werner. "Buy stock in that guy for his career. He's got some good stuff going right now."
Even though Werner wasn’t in Ohio State’s regular special teams lineups for its first four games of the season, it appears that his role in that phase of the game is set to only increase. That could open the door for Werner, who has played 26 late-game snaps at linebacker over the last two weeks, to see more significant playing time on defense, too.
Meyer has said throughout his tenure at Ohio State that for a player to earn regular playing time for the Buckeyes on offense or defense, he needs to first prove his worth on special teams. That tends to be especially true at the linebacker position, where every player on the depth chart is expected to contribute on special teams.
Starting weakside linebacker Jerome Baker and middle linebacker Chris Worley remain regular contributors on the punting unit. Starting strongside linebacker Dante Booker is a regular contributor on the punt block/return unit. Tuf Borland, who has started in place of the injured Worley at middle linebacker for the past two weeks, is a regular contributor on the kickoff return and punt teams.
If Werner can continue to impress his coaches with his performance on special teams, that could convince his coaches to find a place for him in the linebacker rotation.
"I made a comment, I know one thing, Pete Werner should be somewhere (on the depth chart), what he's been doing the last few weeks," Meyer said. "He's fast as you-know-what. He’s a great kid. And he’s tough as anybody."
“Buy stock in that guy for his career. He's got some good stuff going right now.”– Urban Meyer on Pete Werner
Werner isn’t the only linebacker who impressed Meyer with his special teams play on Saturday. Meyer said Monday that fellow true freshman linebacker Baron Browning, redshirt sophomore linebacker Justin Hilliard and senior former walk-on linebacker Zach Turnure have also been "game-changers" on special teams in addition to Werner.
Werner has been listed as the third-team strongside linebacker on the Buckeyes’ depth chart behind Dante Booker, who was Ohio State’s defensive player of the game against Rutgers, and Malik Harrison, who has seen regular playing time on defense and special teams throughout the season. Browning has been listed as the third-team middle linebacker, behind Worley and Borland, while Hilliard has been listed as the third-team weakside linebacker, behind Baker and Keandre Jones (who also plays regularly on special teams). Turnure has not been listed on the depth chart and has yet to play a defensive snap this season.
On a roster full of linebackers who have proven their ability to play on special teams, it could be tough for Werner, Browning and Hilliard to move up this year’s depth chart, but their performance in the third phase of the game is laying the groundwork for them to remain special teams stalwarts while becoming key players at linebacker in future seasons.
Meyer says the overall play of Ohio State’s linebackers has been "just OK," but he is pleased with the progress he saw them make – from the top row of the depth chart to the bottom – against Rutgers.
"That unit’s got momentum right now," Meyer said.