In his first two seasons as a Buckeye, Baron Browning often felt nervous going into games. Once the games began, he was thinking too much, which slowed down his play on the field.
Saturday’s season opener against FAU, the first game of his third season at Ohio State, was different.
“I told Coach Washington after the game, that was one of my first games where I didn’t feel nervous before,” Browning said while meeting with the media on Wednesday. “I just felt at ease about it, and I just think that goes into how I’ve been approaching every day and every moment.”
Given that he arrived at Ohio State as a five-star recruit in the class of 2017, Browning’s first two seasons as a Buckeye can be viewed as a disappointment. While he saw semi-regular playing time in Ohio State’s middle linebacker rotation last season, he has recorded just 37 total tackles so far in his career and hasn’t made many impact plays in a position group that has been a weak link for the Buckeyes over the past two years.
On Saturday, though, Browning showed flashes of potentially emerging as the player he’s been expected to be since he was ranked as the top high school linebacker in the country. He played 36 snaps – the same number of snaps as Tuf Borland, even though Borland started the game in front of Browning at middle linebacker – and recorded four tackles, including one tackle for loss that put his pursuit speed and violence as a tackler on display.
Browning attributes his improved play on Saturday to the work he’s put in this offseason to prepare for this fall and the tutelage he’s received from first-year Ohio State linebackers coach Al Washington.
“The approach Coach Washington has in helping me prepare, I feel like that played a big role,” Browning said. “I watched a lot of film and just prepared … I feel real comfortable, just in the defense and just playing, I’m not thinking. I just feel comfortable.”
Washington praised Browning for his work ethic this offseason; during one interview session this spring, Washington commented that Browning was probably waiting for him to finish so they could watch film together.
“Honestly, I’m surprised I’m not getting a call,” Washington said then. “He’ll be waiting in my office every day. He’s worked his tail off, man. Really has. I’m not just saying that.”
Browning admitted Wednesday, though, that hasn’t always been the case. While he said he started to watch film more regularly toward the end of last year, he didn’t have the same relationship with former linebackers coach Bill Davis for the past two seasons that he has now with Washington, who has pushed him to take his preparation to a new level.
“It’s just different because I have a different relationship with Coach Washington,” Browning said. “Me and him got a great relationship. I had a great relationship with my former coaches too, I’m not saying I didn’t have one with them, but I don’t know how to describe it. It’s just different. It’s just a different vibe.
“I just feel like he connects with me better. He’s got an understanding.”
Now that he feels more confident in the way he is preparing, the game is slowing down for him – instead of the other way around – and allowing him to play faster, which has been a big point of emphasis for Ohio State’s defense throughout its preparation for this fall. With a better understanding of what he’s supposed to do in the Buckeyes’ new defensive scheme and more confidence in his ability to play his role, Browning feels as though he can finally play up to his ability.
“Something we talk about in our program, having a clear mind, clear heart and clear soul, you’re able to play faster,” Browning said. “Able to play how you know you can play without thinking. That’s something I like to do is play without thinking, and I was doing that Saturday, and I’m going to continue to do that.”
“that was one of my first games where I didn’t feel nervous before. I just felt at ease about it, and I just think that goes into how I’ve been approaching every day and every moment.”– Baron Browning on Saturday's season opener against FAU
Washington said last month that Browning has been “progressing” and “playing the way he should play,” and Browning’s teammates, including fellow third-year linebacker Pete Werner, have taken notice of his improvement, as well.
“I can just see he’s more confident,” Werner said of Browning. “He’s communicating a lot more. He’s running to the ball, and you can just see that he just feels better there on the field. He’s just a step quicker.”
Browning was listed as a co-starter with Borland on the Buckeyes’ week one depth chart, so if he continues to play well, it remains possible he could overtake Borland for a spot in the starting lineup. But with Borland still in front of him and younger linebackers like Teradja Mitchell and Dallas Gant also pushing for playing time, Browning knows he must continue to play well just to ensure that he continues to receive as much playing time as he did in the season opener – and there are areas in which he feels he still needs to improve.
“I feel like I did some things well and I feel like I could have did some other things better,” Browning said of his play against FAU, “so just the focus for me was just fixing those things I could have did. Hand placement, just things like that, and just listening to Coach Washington and what he said I could have did better.”
Browning is as confident as he’s ever been, though, that he’ll make plays for Ohio State’s defense as long as he continues to work as hard as he did in preparation for the season.
“I know people have expectations and stuff, but I think the best thing I’ve done is just block all that out and focus on just getting better and listening to Coach Washington,” Browning said. “That’s really just been working for me, so I’m just gonna keep doing the same routine I’ve been doing.
“Just keeping the same routine and mindset, and just being the best player that I can be. Because I know if I do that, that’ll be more than enough.”