Even though Ohio State’s linebackers were widely considered to be one of the team’s weaknesses in 2017, Baron Browning didn’t see the field much for the Buckeyes’ defense last year.
Despite coming in as a five-star recruit and early enrollee in January 2017, Browning played only 95 defensive snaps in his freshman year, with most of those snaps coming in the second half of lopsided games.
Browning, like any competitor would, wanted to be on the field more. But as he looks back upon his freshman year now, Browning realizes he had a lot to learn.
“I’m glad I did have to wait, because I needed to learn the defense,” Browning said while meeting with the media on Tuesday. “Humbling experience, so I’m glad I went through it. But it does feel good to be out there flying around.”
While Browning played primarily as an outside linebacker at Kennedale (Texas) High School, he’s lined up mostly at middle linebacker since arriving at Ohio State. That position comes with different responsibilities – including the responsibility of calling out plays to the other players around him – so it’s a role he’s had to grow into in his first year-plus as a Buckeye.
“At Mike, you got to get yourself lined up as well as everybody else,” Browning said. “You got to make all the checks and calls, get the D-line set. So I mean it’s more of a responsibility vs. just being outside and getting the call and worrying about your job.”
Given that transition, Browning said it took him time to learn Ohio State’s defense and how he was expected to play with it.
“Just understanding our defense and how I fit in, especially at Mike,” Browning said. “Just from being an outside linebacker in high school, coming in to being a middle linebacker, just learning how there’s more things I have to do and a different personality I have to have in doing it.”
Browning said that transition was made easier, though, by having the opportunity to learn from more experienced linebackers like Tuf Borland and the now-departed Chris Worley, who each started games at middle linebacker last season.
“I was watching them and the guys before me, and getting advice from the older guys that come back around,” Browning said, mentioning former Ohio State linebackers Raekwon McMillan and Bobby Carpenter as others who he had the opportunity to learn from.
This summer, Browning proved he was ready to take on a significant role in Ohio State’s defense, beating out Justin Hilliard for the opportunity to begin the season as the Buckeyes’ starting middle linebacker. The true sophomore has started each of Ohio State’s first two games this season, playing 54 defensive snaps and recording five tackles so far.
While he’s still looking to continue to improve, he believes he’s off to a solid start.
“I feel like my first game, I was kind of a bit nervous, my first start,” Browning said. “And then I felt like I played better my second game, so just trying to get better each week.”
His coaches, including acting head coach Ryan Day, have praised the way he has developed into his current role from when he arrived in Columbus last year.
“They’ve put a lot of work in to develop him to where he’s at, where now he’s really running sideline from sideline and making plays,” Day said Tuesday on the Big Ten coaches’ teleconference.
Browning’s time in Ohio State’s starting lineup could ultimately be temporary, as Borland – who rotated off the bench in the Buckeyes’ first two games while continuing to recover from the Achilles injury he suffered this spring – is expected to regain the starting middle linebacker job once he is fully healthy.
Even so, Browning doesn’t view his relationship with Borland as adversarial, but one in which they both help each other become better linebackers.
“We all help each other,” Browning said. “We all know some things better than others. And we just all communicate and just try to help. Like if he’s in or if I’m in, he’s watching me, I’m watching him, and we just correct one another. Just positive feedback from one another. I mean, we’re a brotherhood, so we’re just out here helping one another.”
Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano has said since the beginning of the season that he expects the Buckeyes to rotate linebackers more regularly this season than they did in previous years, so Browning could still see significant playing time even when Borland is back in the starting lineup.
“I think we have more than three linebackers that should play, so we're going to do that,” Schiano said last week. “We're going to try to work those guys in the lineup, and Baron’s one of those guys. As Tuf comes back, I can see them ham-and-egging it. There are certain things that each of them do well right now.”
“If he’s in or if I’m in, he’s watching me, I’m watching him, and we just correct one another. Just positive feedback from one another. I mean, we’re a brotherhood, so we’re just out here helping one another.”– Baron Browning on his relationship with Tuf Borland
Browning said the coaches haven’t told he and Borland how they plan to rotate them going forward – or if they have, he wasn’t going to say. Given that he was practicing at outside linebacker before Borland’s injury, there’s a chance that could mean moving back to his high school position in order to see playing time alongside Borland. He believes the Buckeyes will continue to rotate linebackers throughout the season, though, because of the amount of talent they have at the position.
“Our room in general, we have a lot of talented linebackers, so it’s going to be a big rotation from inside to outside,” Browning said. “We just got a lot of guys who can play, so we just going to keep rotating them in.”
Regardless of what role linebackers coach Bill Davis and his other coaches might ultimately ask him to play, Browning says he’ll be prepared to take it on.
“I just play where they tell me,” Browning said.