Bill Davis Expects Strongside, Weakside Linebackers To Be Interchangeable In Ohio State's Defense

By Dan Hope on April 6, 2018 at 8:35 am
Malik Harrison
Mark J. Rebilas – USA TODAY Sports

Malik Harrison was Ohio State’s first-team strongside linebacker and Keandre Jones was Ohio State’s first-team weakside linebacker when the Buckeyes opened spring practice last month.

Recently, however, Harrison has spent much of his time practicing at weakside linebacker while Jones has spent much of his time practicing at strongside linebacker.

That’s a reflection on how Ohio State linebackers coach Bill Davis views those two positions within the Buckeyes’ defense.

Davis sees the two outside linebacker positions in Ohio State’s defense as interchangeable, and he wants all of his outside linebackers – including his potential starters – to be able to play both spots.

"They need to know both," Davis said earlier this week. "There’s just so much carryover in both positions."

In Ohio State’s defense, Davis and his players say the strongside linebacker – or "SAM" linebacker – takes on greater responsibility in pass coverage and tends to play more in space, while the weakside linebacker – or "WILL" linebacker – has greater responsibility in fitting to play the run.

All in all, though, the responsibilities for the SAM and WILL linebacker spots in Ohio State’s defense are considered very similar to one another – much like the boundary and field safety positions in the secondary – other than which side of the field each player lines up on.

Therefore, much like how safeties coach Alex Grinch rotates his players between the boundary and field spots in practice, Davis rotates his outside linebackers between the strongside and weakside spots in practice, enabling them to learn both positions while also enabling coaches to evaluate all the outside linebackers against one another, instead of splitting them up into two separate positions.

How the Buckeyes specifically utilize their strongside linebacker and their weakside linebacker can vary from game to game, Davis says, because of how the Buckeyes change their defensive game plan each week to adjust for each opponent. Depending on an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, the Buckeyes might play a weakside linebacker more in space than a strongside linebacker, depending on what the Buckeyes feel they need to stop and how they can be aggressive in their attack.

"We have different gameplans where we’ll put someone in space more," Davis said. "We can dictate that. (Defensive coordinator Greg) Schiano does a great job of being the way we want to be against an offense, to stop what we want to stop. And we kind of go on the aggressor. So they’re interchangeable in that sense."

In order for the outside linebackers to be truly interchangeable, though, they need to have experience practicing at both positions and be able to handle the varying responsibilities of each one of them. So that’s why Jones and Harrison have switched spots at times this spring, as has Pete Werner, who is competing with Jones to potentially start at one of the outside linebacker spots.

“They need to know both. There’s just so much carryover in both positions.”– Ohio State linebackers coach Bill Davis

The middle linebacker position is more distinct from the outside linebacker positions, and not interchangeable – "a MIKE is a MIKE," Davis said – but that doesn’t mean the Buckeyes haven’t experimented with linebackers playing both inside and outside, too. Chris Worley actually played all three linebacker positions for Ohio State last year, beginning the year at middle linebacker and finishing the year at strongside linebacker but playing one game at weakside linebacker, against Michigan State, when regular starting weakside linebacker Jerome Baker was sidelined by an injury.

Baron Browning, meanwhile, began this spring practicing at weakside linebacker after playing middle linebacker last year, but has since moved back to middle linebacker. While Browning was moved outside to compete with Harrison, Jones and Werner for a starting outside linebacker spot, he has since moved back inside to compete with Justin Hilliard at middle linebacker after Tuf Borland – the projected starter at middle linebacker – suffered an Achilles injury last month.

Ultimately, the outside linebackers are likely to spend most of their time on one side or the other once the depth chart is set in the fall. As they compete this spring, however, they’re being evaluated at both spots, which has forced them to learn multiple roles, but which they also say hasn’t made their jobs much more difficult because of the similarities between the positions.

"It’s actually easy, because the WILL and the SAM position is actually the same position," Jones said. "It’s just SAM is more to the field, so we playing out in space more. I’m being able to show my athletic ability. WILL is weakside … able to use my hands more. Basically the same position. Nothing has really changed. The speed of the game’s still the same."

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