None of the linebackers currently participating in spring practice at Ohio State have ever started more than one game for the Buckeyes.
Ohio State still has two linebackers on its roster, though, who started multiple games last season.
Tuf Borland started nine games for Ohio State last season at middle linebacker, while Dante Booker started six games for the Buckeyes last season at strongside linebacker. Borland, however, suffered an Achilles injury in practice last month, while Booker is coming off of a pair of shoulder surgeries. Those injuries have not only sidelined Borland and Booker for the spring, but also left their availability for the fall in question.
Ohio State linebackers coach Bill Davis expressed optimism on Wednesday, however, that both Borland and Booker will return to the field and make contributions to the Buckeyes defense this season.
Davis said he expects Booker to be back on the field in late summer, which would give him at least a little bit of time to get back in the mix at linebacker before the season begins in September.
Borland’s recovery timetable is more up in the air, as an Achilles injury often requires a full year of surgery. Ohio State has not specified whether Borland actually tore his Achilles, however, and Davis – echoing Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer – said he expects Borland to make a faster-than-normal recovery because of how hard he will work in rehab.
"Knowing Tuf Borland, he’ll be back sooner than most people would be back," Davis said Wednesday. "We really are ahead of the game with Tuf and how he heals, and he’s healed everything faster than most, so hopefully we’ll have him."
Had Borland not suffered what Davis described as a "really unfortunate injury," he was set to retain his job as the Buckeyes’ starting middle linebacker this season. While all three starting linebacker spots on Ohio State’s defense are currently open for competition – with Justin Hilliard and Baron Browning competing at middle linebacker – Davis said Wednesday that he fully expected Borland to be the starter in the middle before his injury.
"Tuf runs the show," Davis said. "Everyone in there looks at Tuf, and they know Tuf knows and Tuf gets it set and Tuf does his job every down. And he earned that last year. And that’s where Tuf left as, the starter."
Because of the uncertain timetable surrounding his recovery, Davis isn’t committing to Borland re-emerging as the starter when he returns to the field this fall.
"It’s an Achilles, so the timetable is on his own body, when he comes back," Davis said. "We don’t know where that is – game three, game one, training camp – we don’t know that, and that’s going to dictate a lot of where he’ll be back."
“Knowing Tuf Borland, he’ll be back sooner than most people would be back.” – Ohio State linebackers coach Bill Davis
Davis is confident, though, that Borland will ultimately make a full recovery with no ill effects, having seen repeated examples during his time in the NFL of players returning to their old form after suffering Achilles injuries.
"I know what we’re doing now with Achilles, I’ve had many players get Achilles and they come back and play, and that Achilles is never a problem again," Davis said. "That’s the neat part about it. Once it’s fixed, it’s fixed, and I’ve never seen it happen to the same spot."
Booker, on the other hand, has been bitten hard by the injury bug over the past two seasons. He entered the 2016 season as the Buckeyes’ starting weakside linebacker, but ended up taking a medical redshirt after tearing his MCL in the season opener. He entered last season as the Buckeyes’ starting strongside linebacker, and ended up starting six of the Buckeyes’ first nine games, but did not play at all in Ohio State’s final five games.
Given that Booker will have missed the end of last season and the entire spring by the time he finally is able to return, Davis said Booker will have to fight to earn his way back into the starting lineup at outside linebacker, where Malik Harrison, Keandre Jones, Pete Werner and even early enrollee Dallas Gant are currently competing for the two starting spots.
Davis is looking forward to having Booker back on the field, though, because of the experience he brings to the linebacker unit as a fifth-year senior.
"Getting back into off of the injuries, he’s missing a lot of reps, and then he’ll come in and he’ll scrap it out for an outside ‘backer spot," Davis said. "He had some bad shoulders, and he got them fixed, and it’s a great thing, it’s a positive. He’s got some time in the system, so the reps, although they hurt, he’ll be fine when we’re ready to go, and we’re excited about Dante."
While a since-retracted report last month suggested that Booker would transfer after graduating this semester, Davis firmly denied that report on Wednesday – as Meyer did earlier this spring – with the full expectation that Booker will return this fall and compete as hard as he can.
"Right now, Dante Booker is 100 percent in our plans," Davis said. "We’re excited about him coming back and being a big part of our defense."