Al Washington didn’t want to have any biases or preconceived notions.
As a first-year assistant coach at Ohio State, he wanted to give every linebacker an equal chance to play this season, whether or not they played often in 2018. Therefore, he says he didn’t spend loads of time analyzing what happened a season ago.
“I kind of wanted to have a clean slate,” Washington said on Wednesday. “I watched a little bit (of last season’s film), but I kind of wanted to have a clean slate. When I got here in the winter, they were in offseason workouts, so I just wanted to get to know them through that because I don't want anybody judging me on … I want to be judged on what I'm doing now. Especially if guys are young, they grow, evolve. So that was kind of what my mindset was coming here.
Entering a situation arguably more difficult to navigate than any other incoming position coach, Washington returned the five linebackers that played the most snaps last season, including all three starters – Malik Harrison, Tuf Borland and Pete Werner – along with Baron Browning. However, since they return from last year’s team, that means they also played roles in the Buckeyes allowing the most yards, most points, longest passing play and longest rushing play in Ohio State history in 2018.
So even though Washington had three returning starters and Browning, last year’s top backup, at his disposal, opportunities for younger linebackers to push for starting spots appeared to exist. It seemed possible that Browning and Teradja Mitchell could possibly overtake Borland as the starting middle linebacker and feasible that either K’Vaughan Pope or Dallas Gant could make a second-year leap.
But 10 days before the season, as much as the defensive coaching staff changed, there has been an equal lack of revision at the second level of the defense.
Harrison is locked in as the starting weakside linebacker. Werner seems to have a firm grasp at strongside linebacker. Borland hasn’t been declared the starter, but based on the praise both Washington and Greg Mattison have levied upon him, his captaincy and how often he took first-team reps this spring, he likely has a strong edge at middle linebacker. Browning isn’t expected to start, but he’ll once again factor heavily into Ohio State’s plans as an inside linebacker and in passing situations.
In other words, as the kickoff of the 2019 season nears, it has become abundantly clear that Washington will rely on the same foursome that Billy Davis leaned on last season.
How did Washington get to this point, even though he says he tried to give everybody a fair opportunity to play? Let him explain.
“I think that, hell, I think they created that because they did such a fine job,” Washington said on Wednesday. “And I did have a clean slate. But you have experience at what you do, it'll show. So when you don't have that experience all the time, sometimes you have to experience those tough moments, if that makes any sense. To answer your question, those four guys played a lot, so their learning curve's going to be different. They're going to be able to roll. They've been around different systems.
“But the season's long. We're going to need everybody. We're going to need them all. When we kick the ball off on FAU on the 31st, we'll go from there.”
Mitchell, Gant and Pope will likely play in reserve roles, and some freshmen could find themselves in the mix, too. But in order to get Ohio State’s defense back to the Silver Bullet status Damon Arnette declared it has already returned to, the Buckeyes need improved performances from their three returning starters and Browning.
Werner and Borland, the two linebackers that drew the most criticism from the fan base last year, have been the two that Washington and Mattison have been more effusive with in their praise.
Mattison praised Werner heavily last week, and Washington doubled down on Wednesday in the most emphatic way he could.
“The fact that Pete will do exactly what you need him to do, and he will bust his tail, and he just finds a way to get to the ball,” Washington said. “Pete Werner this camp has had probably one of the best camps I've seen a guy have. I'm not just saying that. I mean, that guy is a warrior, and I have a ton of respect for him and what he goes about his business. Again, he's not alone. We've had some really good performers this camp. That kid, I mean, respect through the roof. He has a crazy skillset.”
While talking about his willingness to do his job and understanding of what he needs to do, Washington compared him to the Terminator.
Washington dished out similar compliments to Borland, using the same word – “warrior” – that he used to describe Werner. Unlike Werner, though, who didn’t seem to have tons of competition for his strongside linebacker position, Borland has had to hold off both Browning and Mitchell.
In July, Ryan Day said Borland was getting “pushed” by Mitchell, and multiple coaches have mentioned Browning as having an impressive fall camp performance. Still, Washington says he has no problem riding Borland, a veteran of 20 starts, as a heavy contributor – and likely starter – this fall.
“When people say I want to see this, that and that, how about this. How about let's see them all,” Washington said. “And the reason you ask the question, how does Tuf do it: you watch the tape. You come in with me and watch tape. There's a reason. That kid is a warrior, and he gets to the ball. Teradja and Baron, those guys are going to play, too. We're all together. When people say that, I feel like they're not living in our (world). But, you know what, it's all good.”
No matter how well the foursome played throughout spring practices and in preseason camp, Washington will immediately find himself under the microscope if the linebackers – but especially Werner and Borland – don’t play up to the Ohio State expectation.
He had eight months to figure out who to rely on, and he seems to have settled on the same linebackers that played most on an underperforming defense.
It might be the right decision. It might not. But it’s undoubtedly one that will be heavily dissected beginning on Aug. 31.