With Two 2017 Starting Linebackers Departed and Another Recovering From Injury, Opportunities Abound

By Chris Lauderback on August 9, 2018 at 11:05 am
Greg Schiano needs Keandre Jones and Baron Browning to step up in 2018.

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

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Nearly one full week into fall camp, numerous position battles continue to play out and with that, a lot of eyes are on the linebackers where Greg Schiano and Billy Davis look to replace two starters from last season while also finding a third to potentially fill in for Tuf Borland as he rehabilitates an Achilles injury suffered in spring drills. 

Last year's team leader in tackles with 72, Jerome Baker, parlayed a strong season in which he also tallied 8.0 TFL into a third round selection by the Miami Dolphins in the NFL Draft. 

Fellow outside linebacker Chris Worley posted 56 stops a season ago, along with 5.0 TFL, and while that wasn't good enough to get drafted he did sign a free agent deal with the Cincinnati Bengals. 

Finally, Borland, who logged nine starts last season including the final five games, tallied 58 tackles to place fourth on the team, showing a nose for the ball in run support. Though Borland was seen participating in practice this past Tuesday, it still might be a bit of a stretch to think he'll be ready for the season opener against Oregon State. That's not to say he won't be – just that even if he is, it might be wise to bring him along slowly since the first two opponents look to be layups. 

Replacing all those tackles from Baker and Worley definitively, along with maybe Borland for a spell, would appear a tall task for any team though of course Ohio State isn't hurting for former blue chips to evaluate and a few even have a good bit of game experience to fall back on. 

Of further note is the notion Davis has suggested his two outside linebacker positions are essentially interchangeable from a schematic standpoint and the Buckeyes often feature just two linebackers pending down and distance. 

In fact, junior outside linebacker Malik Harrison saw a lot of time last year when Ohio State deployed its nickel package, logging nearly 500 plays in total. Harrison even started one game, the blowout of Michigan State, and responded with a career-high six tackles. The Walnut Ridge product seems a shoe-in to start this year though the staff refused to definitively acknowledge that reality post-spring. 

Behind Harrison, it looks like redshirt senior Dante Booker is the most likely name and while he didn't play down the stretch he did log 31 stops last season as part of an injury-riddled career-to-date. 

Tuf Borland
Ohio State's defense will receive a boost when Tuf Borland returns to 100% health. Will it be in time for the opener?

In the middle of the defense, sophomore Baron Browning and redshirt junior Justin Hilliard continue their spring fight for a starting job, at least until Borland returns. 

Hilliard has battled his own injury woes through four years in the program but the redshirt junior is finally healthy and in position to challenge for meaningful snaps. Still, I find it hard to believe Browning, a sophomore, won't ultimately separate himself enough to be the opening day starter considering his solid spring and five-star pedigree. 

Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised in the least that when Borland does eventually return to the lineup, assuming he misses any time at all, Browning slides to the outside to remain in the starting lineup. 

Speaking of the other outside spot, it looked like junior Keandre Jones left spring camp as the penciled in starter with sophomore Pete Werner in the mix. Jones tallied 15 tackles last season and saw 87 defensive snaps in addition to his status on special teams while Werner's action was almost exclusively relegated to special teams. 

Jones may have the very slight edge in experience but it sounds like Werner could be coming on in a way that should at least ensure some rotational snaps in the early going. 

Again, a healthy Borland could still ultimately push both of these guys to the sidelines in favor of a Harrison, Borland, Browning trio. 

Beyond those names, Teradja Mitchell and Dallas Gant highlight the incoming freshmen but considering all that depth, carving out a niche on special teams should be the Year One goal. 

Behind a loaded defensive line, a somewhat unproven crop of linebackers should have room to roam but they'll need to perform like veterans in a hurry if Ohio State is to emerge unscathed from a September schedule featuring a neutral site battle against TCU before a game-five showdown against Penn State in Happy Valley. 

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