Urban Meyer already knew. He knew Tuf Borland wouldn’t miss a game.
So when Borland suffered an Achilles injury during a practice in the spring of 2018, he immediately expressed confidence that the middle linebacker would return by the time the season began.
“He’s a little bit like J.T. Barrett,” Meyer said on March 26, 2018. “You say he’s out for a while, and he’s not going to be out that long.”
A few months later, Borland proved him right.
His teammates voted him as a team captain as a redshirt sophomore, and he played in every game, starting 11 of them. However, Borland didn’t have a banner season on the field. Along with fellow starters Pete Werner and Malik Harrison, the linebackers drew a massive amount of criticism about their performance from the team’s fans, crescendoing in the Buckeyes’ 49-20 loss to Purdue.
Questions about whether Borland was still hindered by his Achilles injury arose as the 14-game campaign dragged on. Throughout the hailstorm of criticism, Borland steadfastly refused to acknowledge whether his speedier-than-usual return to the field had any effect on his play.
Now that time has passed and the Buckeyes are about to enter the 2019 season, though, it has become more clear that Borland wasn’t playing at full strength. His roommate and fellow captain, Jordan Fuller, acknowledged as much on Monday.
“I would say he wanted to be on the field as fast as he could, and I don't think he was probably 100 percent out there,” Fuller said. “It's fun seeing him go right now.”
If Borland had his way, nobody would have even known of the injury. He would prefer if no one knows right now.
That refusal to even offer the most reasonable of a possible explanation about why he didn’t play up to his standard is exactly what makes him a captain, a title he earned on Monday for the second year in a row.
“I think (the criticism) comes with the territory of being an athlete at Ohio State,” Borland said. “You're on the biggest stage. People are going to come at you. People are going to say things. But it's part of their job. As you progress to higher levels, you've just kind of got to put that aside and just do your job.”
See? That’s a captain’s response.
But even Borland believes he’s a different player after a mostly healthy offseason.
“It's night and day,” Borland said on Monday. “I feel a huge difference. I'm just excited for the upcoming season.”
He said he’s “completely healthy” after an offseason full of working out rather than rehabbing from an injury.
“I was saying earlier that just to go through a whole winter, whole spring, whole summer, all the workouts, everything with the team, that instills some confidence in you that you can play at a high level,” Borland said. “And I feel that I can do that.”
No matter how great Borland feels, he likely has his limitations.
“Tuf, he brings it. Like, the energy and the work ethic. You can see the look in his eyes. He doesn't take one play off. That means so much to him. That's why we voted him as a captain, really.”– Jordan Fuller on Tuf Borland
The 6-foot-1, 231-pounder might lack the top-end sideline-to-sideline speed of an every-down middle linebacker. He could come off the field on third-down-and-long situations or in obvious passing downs in favor of Baron Browning, a more athletic option at the second level.
A clean bill of health won’t make Borland a completely different player. But it could help him not fall a half-step behind a running back or react a moment too slowly when reading a quarterback. Plus, he was able to spend the offseason improving his speed and explosion rather than rehabilitating his Achilles.
“I know Tuf's hard on himself, so last year I always felt like he was in the right spots,” Fuller said. “But this year, he's definitely been in the right spots, and I can tell he's flashing more on film. Playing more confident, just everything. I think Tuf's playing like himself and the kind of player he expects himself to be.”
He also appears to have a hefty edge to remain the starting middle linebacker, even though Ryan Day hinted at Big Ten media days that Borland needed a strong camp to hold onto his starting job due to surging sophomore Teradja Mitchell.
During the open media viewing windows during preseason camp, though, Borland has taken the vast majority of snaps with the first-team defense. Based on him taking starter reps, his captainship and Greg Mattison’s flattering comments, a scenario in which Borland remains the starter seems likely – even though Mitchell and Browning could cut into his snaps.
“I like everything about Tuf Borland's game,” Mattison said last week. “Tuf Borland is another one that comes out to practice every day, extremely intelligent. Takes great pride in getting the front lined up … Tuf and the other linebackers have done a great job of that, and I like his physicality. I like his intelligence. I like everything about his game.”
Borland’s penchant for leadership also has landed him in the good graces of the almost entirely new defensive coaching staff.
He’s not always the vocal, rah-rah leader that the team leans on for pregame and halftime speeches. Rather, he’s the constant presence in the locker room and on the field doing everything to the best of his ability, which enabled him to quickly earn respect from his teammates.
“It's every day,” Fuller said. “Tuf, he brings it. Like, the energy and the work ethic. You can see the look in his eyes. He doesn't take one play off. That means so much to him. That's why we voted him as a captain, really. I can't really point out one specific time, but it's just an everyday thing where Tuf brings it. And that's really hard to do.”
Borland noted the “great responsibility” that comes with joining Fuller, Chase Young, J.K. Dobbins, Jonathon Cooper, K.J. Hill and C.J. Saunders as a captain, calling it a “tremendous honor.”
If his teammates decide to vote him as a captain against next season – and there’s no reason to think that won’t happen – Borland would join J.T. Barrett as only the second player in Ohio State history to become a three-time captain.
“He deserves it,” Fuller said when asked about that possibility.
If asked, Borland won’t outright say that, which is exactly why his teammates voted him a captain again.
In that way, he’s also a lot like Barrett.