Ohio State's linebacker play was a major area of improvement in 2019.
The 2018 Buckeye defense finished the season ranked No. 71 in the country and the performance led to a number of changes on the coaching staff. Those changes paid off in a big way in 2019 and the defense ended the season atop the national rankings.
Malik Harrison was viewed as Ohio State's top linebacker for the last two seasons, but he's now off to the National Football League. There was a time when Tuf Borland and Pete Werner were often criticized, but they both put together nice turnarounds during their junior campaigns.
Baron Browning arrived in Columbus back in 2017 as he joined Chase Young, Jeffrey Okudah, Shaun Wade, and Wyatt Davis as five-star signees. Browning's career hasn't gone the way most thought it would, and while the Texan has seen significant playing time, he's yet to earn a starting role. That's expected to change in 2020 as Harrison's departure opens the door for a new starter.
Justin Hilliard was granted a sixth year of eligibility due to his injury history, so he too should be available next season. That would mean the linebacker rotation will likely feature Browning, Borland, and Werner with a little bit of Hilliard sprinkled in.
Al Washington will certainly see how things play out in the spring and summer months, but it's probably going to be a senior-heavy linebacker rotation for the 2020 season. If that's the case, it could mean another year of waiting in the wings for Ohio State's talented youngsters.
Teradja Mitchell, Dallas Gant, and K'Vaughan Pope arrived back in 2018 and have seen limited action since that time. Mitchell was the most heralded of the trio as the Virginia product was ranked No. 44 nationally and listed as the country's second-best inside linebacker prospect. Gant and Pope were both four-stars and ranked inside the top-250.
Mitchell is viewed as more of a thumper of an inside backer somewhat in the mold of a Raekwon McMillan. There had been some thought that he'd push Tuf Borland in 2019, but his playing time was limited to 99 snaps on the season with most of that coming against the likes of FAU, Cincinnati, and Rutgers.
Toledo's Dallas Gant saw action on 118 snaps while Pope was on the field for 77. Washington had and will continue to have some interchangeable parts at linebacker, but Browning and Gant were regularly listed as the backups for Tuf Borland while Pope and Mitchell spelled Malik Harrison; at least on the weekly status reports and depth charts.
Alex Williams tackling Dallas Gant > Teradja Mitchell tackling the Johnny Langan pic.twitter.com/hulUkwCeSc— Colin Hass-Hill (@chasshill) November 16, 2019
The mythical "bullet" position didn't really turn out the way many expected it would. At first, the thought was that we'd see more of a hybrid safety/linebacker type likely in the form of Brendon White. Instead, Jeff Hafley often deployed just one safety and kept Pete Werner on the field. Werner trailed only Malik Harrison in total defensive snaps, though Chase Young would have surpassed him had it not been for the suspension.
Hafley is now at Boston College while Jeffrey Okudah, Damon Arnette, and Jordan Fuller are off to the NFL. Additionally, the departure of Malik Harrison will undoubtedly shake things up in the back seven. Ryan Day is still looking to officially hire a co-defensive coordinator/secondary coach, and that too may lead to a slightly different approach.
Mitchell, Gant, and Pope will surely see plenty of action as juniors in 2020, but it's probably unreasonable to expect either one to surpass the seniors ahead of them on the pecking order. Justin Hilliard flashed a few times last season, and his return may complicate things even more for the juniors.
The good news? There's bound to be a competition even if the odds favor the more seasoned veterans, and all three may be in line for starting roles as seniors in 2021.