When Urban Meyer put the finishing touches on Ohio State's 2017 recruiting cycle, five-star linebacker Baron Browning was one of the crown jewels of the class.
As the No. 11 prospect in the country, he would've been the highest-rated player to sign with a Big Ten team if not for defensive end Chase Young (ranked No. 7) and Jeff Okudah (No. 8), who both joined Browning as Buckeyes.
Those were just three of the five five-star prospects who signed with Ohio State that year, along with standout cornerback Shaun Wade and interior linemen Wyatt Davis.
Four of those five players have already performed up to the hype. Young was the most dominant pass-rusher in college football last year and is projected as the consensus No. 2 overall pick in this year's NFL draft.
Okudah was similarly dominant on the perimeter, and he joined Young in making the early jump to the NFL. Analysts rave about Okudah's coverage skills, and many are calling him the best defensive back prospect in the NFL draft in years.
Then there's Wade and Davis. Both could've made the jump to the league this year, but they returned to Columbus with the potential to be first-round picks after another year with the Buckeyes. Wade will lead a completely overhauled secondary as the team's lone returning starter in the defensive backfield, while Davis has been rated the No. 2 returning offensive linemen in all of college football by Pro Football Focus.
And then there's Browning, who has yet to emerge above the role of a rotational player.
It hasn't been the path the Kennedale, Texas product envisioned for himself when he left the south for Ohio State. While players from his class started to ascend up the depth chart, Browning was stuck behind guys who were 250 (Pete Werner) and 300 (Tuf Borland) spots lower than him in their respective recruiting classes.
But to Browning's credit, he's continued to push himself in the training room, in practices and with film study, and when Ryan Day made near-wholesale changes to the defensive staff in January 2019, he took advantage of a fresh start.
That hard work didn't result in a starting role for last year's defense, but it got him on the field as a key rotational player.
“Baron Browning is an outstanding athlete. He’s very, very strong, he’s got experience, he plays extremely hard,” co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said midway through the 2019 season. “He does what a great linebacker is expected to do... He’s a very big part of our defense.”
There were ups and downs, of course, but Browning played in 11 of Ohio State's 14 games last year and recorded 43 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and five sacks. He wasn't tremendous in coverage – possibly a result of the core-muscle injury he suffered midway through the year – but when the staff let him loose and allowed him to attack downhill, he was a force.
The departure of Malik Harrison has created an opening in the starting lineup ahead of Browning's final season with the Buckeyes, and he's the favorite to fill that gap when Ohio State kicks off the 2020 season.
A fully healthy Browning with another year in a scheme that fits his skillset could help the former five-star reach the potential that's alluded him during his Buckeye career.