2018 Season Preview: Questions Swirl Around Ohio State's Inexperienced Yet Talented Linebacking Corps

By Derrick Webb on August 19, 2018 at 1:30 pm
Malik Harrison enters his junior year with 49 career tackles and has played in 26 games for the Buckeyes over the past two seasons.

It's a position group that was questioned, doubted and chastised throughout the course of the 2017 season, and after losing two starters, it's hard to believe those same sentiments won't be shared again early this fall.

After the departure of Jerome Baker and Chris Worley last year — Baker was drafted by the Miami Dolphins while Worley signed with the Cincinnati Bengals as an undrafted free agent — the Buckeyes have turned their attention to an inexperienced yet talented group to fill the gaps.

Our Season Preview continues by taking a look at the linebacking corps, a batch that still has many questions to answer and the ability to silence its critics.

What We Know

According to acting head coach Ryan Day, linebackers coach Bill Davis "feels as if things are starting to fall into place." Day made comments about the Buckeyes' linebackers, as well as the rest of the team's depth chart, via Twitter this past Friday in a letter to fans and media.

What he didn't do was name a starter at any of the three positions, instead saying, "There are fierce competitions at all three positions."

But it'd be naive to think that either sophomore Baron Browning or junior Justin Hilliard doesn't start in the middle. Browning, a former five-star recruit out of Forth Worth, Texas, overcame a shoulder injury last spring before playing 12 games. Hilliard, a Cincinnati native, played in all 14 contests.

This is, of course, assuming sophomore Tuf Borland isn't ready to go on Sept. 1.

According to Day's letter, it wouldn't seem so as it read, "Baron Browning and Justin Hilliard are battling at (the) Mike (position) while Tuf Borland is recovering from his Achilles injury."

If Borland is healthy, the Buckeyes are better. He made 58 tackles last season, fourth-most on the team, and was named the defensive player of the game twice. Head coach Urban Meyer has said he feels confident that Borland will be back at some point this season, which should be a sigh of relief for Ohio State fans.

On the outside, junior Malik Harrison is expected to start at weakside linebacker while redshirt senior Dante Booker and sophomore Pete Werner "are all over the field making plays on a daily basis," according to Day, as they compete at strongside linebacker.

Dante Booker

During Saturday's practice, Harrison and Werner received first-team reps.

It should come as no surprise to see Harrison penciled in after he saw 487 snaps last fall. But Werner and Booker have been back and forth and, admittedly, possess more of the unknown. Both should see significant playing time in the team's rotation.

Day also made mention of junior Keandre Jones, who's competing with Harrison for playing time. Jones played in all 14 games last season and saw 87 snaps.

What We Don't Know

Even with the amount of talent this year's linebacker crew has, there's much uncertainty surrounding it and rightfully so.

At times last season, Ohio State's biggest weakness was the linebacker position — specifically in the team's two losses to Oklahoma and Iowa.

In Day's letter, he said of his linebackers, "We’re anxious to see how these final scrimmages and practices go before game week."

With Borland likely sidelined for the start of the season, it means that the Buckeyes will replace all three starters from a year ago, never a welcome sign. It could mean many of the linebackers on the roster, possibly even including true freshmen Dallas Gant, K'Vaughan Pope and Teradja Mitchell, could rotate in until the Buckeyes find a trio they want to stick with.

Borland started nine games last season, Booker started six and Harrison started one, but none of the other linebackers have ever started a game at Ohio State. Regardless of who wins the three starting jobs, they'll have the task of proving themselves worthy right off the bat.

5 BARON BROWNING LB 6-3 238 SO Fort Worth, Texas (Kennedale)
7 TERADJA MITCHELL LB 6-2 236 FR Virginia Beach, Virginia (Bishop Sullivan)
16 KEANDRE JONES LB 6-2 228 JR Olney, Maryland (Good Counsel)
19 DALLAS GANT LB 6-3 225 FR Toledo, Ohio (St. John's Jesuit)
20 PETE WERNER LB 6-3 236 SO Indianapolis, Indiana (Cathedral)
32 TUF BORLAND LB 6-1 230 RS SO Bolingbrook, Illinois (Bolingbrook)
36 K'VAUGHAN POPE LB 6-1 226 FR Dinwiddie, Virginia (Dinwiddie)
37 TRAYVON WILBURN LB 6-0 212 FR Cincinnati, Ohio (Mount Healthy)
39 MALIK HARRISON LB 6-3 245 JR Columbus, Ohio (Walnut Ridge)
41 HAYDEN JESTER LB 6-1 230 JR Cincinnati, Ohio (LaSalle)
46 CADE KACHERSKI LB 6-3 190 FR Dublin, Ohio (Jerome)
47 JUSTIN HILLIARD LB 6-1 230 RS JR Cincinnati, Ohio (St. Xavier)
52 DANTE BOOKER LB 6-3 240 RS SR Akron, Ohio (St. Vincent-St. Mary)

Position Outlook

Put simply, the Buckeyes are stuck in a wait-and-see situation.

They have the talent. But Baker and Worley had talent too, and Ohio State still had its share of problems defending the play-action pass, covering tight ends and running backs out of the backfield, and putting a stop to the run at times.

Take last year's loss to Iowa for instance. The Hawkeyes completed 21 passes, 13 of which were caught by tight ends or running backs. That statistic is cringe-worthy, considering the fact Ohio State faces tight ends like Oregon State's Noah Togiai, Illinois' Louis Dorsey, Purdue's Cole Herdman and Michigan's Sean McKeon this year.

However, Davis is fully aware of what his newest group needs to work on.

Harrison was a bright spot as a sophomore, and Borland has already proven himself. While the rest of the group still has to earn respect, they have tremendous upside.

Opponents will test the Buckeyes' linebacking core early and often. Time will tell if they're up to the challenge.

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