While the linebacker position will be one of the biggest question marks on Ohio State’s roster going into the 2018 season, Urban Meyer likes what he’s seen from that unit through nine practices this spring.
Given that the linebackers were one of Ohio State’s weakest units last season, and the Buckeyes lost two starters from that unit in Jerome Baker and Chris Worley, there was already reason to be concerned about the linebackers entering the spring. There’s perhaps even more reason for concern now that Tuf Borland, the other starter from last year’s unit, is sidelined with an Achilles injury.
Ohio State still has plenty of talent in its linebacker corps, though, and Meyer said Monday that he has been impressed with the way that group has progressed since spring practices began last month.
"That's one of our better units as far as getting better," Meyer said. "They're getting better. Really talented guys."
With Borland sidelined, though Meyer said Monday that the Buckeyes hope to have Borland back in September, Ohio State currently has five linebackers seriously competing for its three starting spots, and Meyer says all five of them have had good springs so far.
The two frontrunners to start at the outside linebacker appear to be Malik Harrison and Keandre Jones, who have been running with the first-team defense all spring. While Harrison played mostly at strongside linebacker and Jones was Jerome Baker’s backup at weakside linebacker last season, Meyer said they have actually been cross-training between the outside linebacker spots, with Harrison practicing some at the WILL position and Jones practicing some at the SAM position.
Baron Browning, Pete Werner and Justin Hilliard, meanwhile, were all among the players Meyer named (along with defensive tackle Davon Hamilton, offensive guard Malcolm Pridgeon and tight end Luke Farrell) when asked Monday to name some of the players who have made big leaps in their development from last season to this season. Browning and Werner both graded out as "champions" for the Buckeyes’ scrimmage on Friday, Meyer said, while Hilliard was an honorable mention.
“That's one of our better units as far as getting better.” – Urban Meyer on Ohio State's linebackers
Should Borland miss the start of the season, it’s likely that one of those three linebackers will begin the season as the starting middle linebacker. It also remains possible that any one of them could beat out Harrison or Jones for a spot on the lineup, or keep the middle linebacker job even when Borland returns, if they continue to perform well the rest of the spring and into fall camp.
Dante Booker, who is out this spring recovering from shoulder surgery, could also factor into the linebacker competition if he is able to make a full recovery for fall camp. Dallas Gant has made an early impression as an early enrollee, and fellow true freshmen Teradja Mitchell and K’Vaughan Pope are talented enough to push for playing time when they arrive this summer. All of them could face an uphill battle to crack this year’s linebacker rotation, however, because the five returning scholarship linebackers who have been healthy enough to practice have all made a positive impression on their coaches this spring.