Ohio State will have a new position on its defense this fall.
That position will be called “Bullet,” and it’s a hybrid linebacker/safety position – similar to the “Viper” position that Jabrill Peppers and Khaleke Hudson played at Michigan in recent years – that is being coached by the two new Ohio State assistants who were previously with the Wolverines, linebackers coach Al Washington and co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.
What are the Buckeyes looking for from that position?
“A playmaker,” Washington said Thursday while meeting with the media for the first time this spring. “Put him in position to make plays. See what they can do well. We’re trying to figure out what a guy does well and then try to put them in a position to do it.”
Washington said Thursday that Brendon White and Jahsen Wint, who were both safeties for the Buckeyes last season, have been taking the majority of repetitions at that position so far, though they have also still been taking some reps at safety, as well.
It’s too early to say what Ohio State’s depth chart at that position or at any of the linebacker positions will look like right now, Washington said, but White was seen taking most of the first-team reps at that spot during the two practices that were open to the media earlier this spring, and was a starting safety for the Buckeyes’ final five games last year.
“He’s an established player,” Washington said of White. “He’s one of those guys that’s put his body of work in, he’s a great kid, works his tail off. He’s in all the time, trying to get extra tidbits.”
The addition of the Bullet position to the Buckeyes’ defense is a recognition from their new defensive coaches that they need to have a multitude of players who can match up with explosive athletes in space, and that not all traditional linebackers are equipped to do that.
Washington mentioned Purdue slot receiver Rondale Moore, who caught 12 passes for 170 yards and two touchdowns in the Boilermakers’ 49-20 blowout win over Ohio State last year, on multiple occasions Thursday as an example of the type of player defenses need to be prepared for.
That said, the Buckeyes also want their Bullet to be a player who can attack downhill and be a pass-rusher in addition to covering slot receivers, so he has to be a versatile player who is capable of being both a linebacker and a safety. White and Wint have been identified as the best candidates on the current roster to fulfill that role, but Washington said the Buckeyes will also recruit to that position in the future.
“That guy is a guy who can sack, he can rush the passer; not every safety can do that,” Washington said. “He’s a guy that has to be able to play at the line of scrimmage and use his hands; not every safety can do that. The guy has to be able to cover man, the slot; not every linebacker can do that.”
For the rest of Ohio State’s linebackers, the new position could leave less playing time to go around since there will now be more situations in which the Buckeyes only have two traditional linebackers on the field – the Mike and the Will – with the Bullet taking the place of the Sam linebacker. But there will also be situations in which the Buckeyes use three traditional linebackers, and potentially even four in some situations; Washington said that’s all dependent on matchups.
“It depends on who you’re playing,” Washington said. “I can just tell you, we’re not going to play four linebackers vs. 10 personnel (four wide receivers, one running back). That’s not happening. And we’re not playing two linebackers vs. 12 or 22 (two-tight end sets). It’s who you’re playing, and what you’re asking a guy to do is the big thing.”
“That guy is a guy who can sack, he can rush the passer; not every safety can do that. He’s a guy that has to be able to play at the line of scrimmage and use his hands; not every safety can do that. The guy has to be able to cover man, the slot; not every linebacker can do that.”– Al Washington on what the 'Bullet' must be able to do
As for the traditional linebackers, Washington implied that he expects Malik Harrison to continue to be the starter at weakside linebacker, saying that he has earned his place at the top of the depth chart.
“He’s a fourth-year guy, he’s a senior, clearly he’s not on the same level as a freshman,” Washington said of Harrison. “He’s an excellent talent. He’s shown that. He’s worked his tail off. He’s been a leader.”
Washington also listed Tuf Borland and Pete Werner – who started at middle and strongside linebacker for the Buckeyes last season – and Justin Hilliard and Baron Browning as linebackers who have earned “equity” in the room as upperclassmen who have worked hard and become leaders of the position group.
At the same time, Washington also mentioned sophomore linebackers Dallas Gant and Teradja Mitchell as young players who are emerging, and said all of those players have been competing – which he believes makes everyone better.
“Nobody’s comfortable, nobody’s complacent, everybody’s growth-minded, everybody’s eager,” Washington said. “So it’s been awesome, because everybody’s kind of bought into that, and actually helping each other. Guys are very supportive of each other. When they’re out there, they want it, so it’s been fun in that way.”
Borland, Browning and Mitchell have been taking the majority of reps at middle linebacker this spring, while Browning has also been working at the Will spot, where Gant factors in as a likely backup to Harrison. Werner could factor in as a more traditional Sam linebacker in personnel alignments where the Buckeyes still use three traditional linebackers, while Hilliard and Pope are other linebackers who could be in the mix.
Right now, none of those linebackers are regularly taking reps at the Bullet position, though Washington said that could change over time, as the Buckeyes are still just four practices into spring.
Ideally, Washington said he would like the Mike and Will linebackers to be interchangeable in Ohio State’s defense, but said the two positions do come with different requirements.
“You would like it to be that way, but man, that Mike’s got to be a dude,” Washington said. “And you know what, the Will’s got to be, because there’s times, if you get like a two-by-two formation or you vacate the back out their side of the Will, they’ve got to have more cover skills than maybe the Mike.”
There are many similar qualities, though, that Washington looks for from both inside linebacker positions.
“Fundamentally, they got to be excellent because they’re closer to the ball, and we’re a fundamentally focused unit,” Washington said. “You talk about leverage, you talk about footwork, you talk about hands, all those things, tackling. And then you got to be instinctive.
“You got to be able to use your eyes. You got to read your keys, and you have to be able to act on it. So instincts are big. And guys that love contact. Obviously you got to be able to run, but everybody can run. You got to want guys who love contact, that just seek it.”