Everybody wanted Baron Browning out of Kennedale, Texas.
Alabama, Clemson, LSU and just about every other power program offered him a scholarship. Greg Mattison, then at Michigan, tried to convince him to play for the Wolverines, who hosted him on a visit. Schools across the country wanted the nation’s top-ranked linebacker patrolling their defense.
Ultimately, Ohio State won him over. Luke Fickell wanted Browning to become the next great outside linebacker in Columbus, and he bought in.
Yet when Fickell left to become Cincinnati’s head coach, Browning got moved to middle linebacker. He spent two years there under Billy Davis and remained at Mike when Al Washington took over the position group last year. But as Browning enters his final spring practices as a Buckeye, he says the coaches now have him focusing on playing outside linebacker.
“I haven't really been in that inside,” Browning said on Wednesday morning. “I've been kind of focusing on that outside role now.”
Should Browning stick at Will and Sam, he’d end up back at the position Ohio State initially recruited him to play. Back home at the position he played in high school, too.
“I feel like that's something I'm comfortable at doing. I'm just excited and looking forward to it. I can't wait to get back out there this spring and get some reps at it.”– Baron Browning on playing outside linebacker
For Browning, a position swap would possibly give him a chance to start somewhere he feels more comfortable playing, and for the Buckeyes, it would put arguably its most athletic linebacker into potentially more advantageous positions to make use of his speed and physicality.
“I feel like that's more my natural position I played in high school, so it's something I feel comfortable doing and I'm excited for it,” Browning said.
Numbers-wise, Washington shouldn’t have to worry much about the effects of Browning moving away from middle linebacker. It’s made possible due to the impressive depth from upperclassmen at the second level of the defense.
Ohio State still has Tuf Borland at middle linebacker, and Dallas Gant has been taking reps behind him in the middle. If needed, Teradja Mitchell has also played that spot – though he’s at Will right now. Could Gant take Browning’s role as the linebacker who spells Borland on passing downs? It’s certainly possible. Moreso than any other position, Ohio State has a boatload of moving pieces to deal with at linebacker, even though it returns Pete Werner and Borland as starters.
One of those moves appears to be Browning away from the middle. Browning said he was told by the coaching staff to focus on Sam and Will around the time winter workouts began.
“It's just a different role, I feel like, being outside versus the inside,” Browning said. “I feel like when you're an inside, you've got to kind of make sure everybody's in line. You get everybody set. You're the foundation of the defense. And outside, I feel like you're in your own world. They're just two different worlds. I feel like it's a big difference when you go outside to in or inside to out. It's just a big change, something we've got to get used to and just learn.”
For Browning, shifting away from middle linebacker might allow him to maximize the physical tools that once made him a five-star recruit.
Even though Mike and Will are both viewed as “inside linebacker” spots in Ohio State’s defense, the middle linebacker typically has more calls to make. It has more pre-snap responsibilities. That’s why the coaching staff loves Borland, who thrives in that spot. The other two linebacker positions, Browning said, allow for “a little more freedom.” He understands that from experience, even though he mostly played in the middle the past couple seasons.
Browning effectively played outside linebacker in 2019 in certain third-down packages when the Buckeyes anticipated opponents attacking them through the air.
“I definitely feel like there was a higher comfort level of freedom when I was in those situations,” he said.
Should Browning end up at Sam or Will, he imagines he could have a similar comfort level to what he felt on third downs in 2019.
It’s not as though Browning can’t play in the middle. He produced well for Ohio State in that spot last year. What makes him special and what made him a top-level recruit, though, is his remarkable physical gifts, which have been clear ever since he stepped foot on campus. He now stands 6-foot-3, weighs 240 pounds and might be the fastest linebacker on the roster.
To maximize those traits, it would behoove the Buckeyes to put him in space whenever possible and get him to play instinctively downhill rather than think too much while trying to make plays.
Browning could even spend some time as an edge rusher. After Wednesday’s practice, he spent some time working with Tyler Friday and Zach Harrison. He took a few snaps last season as a standup pass rusher on the edge, though those moments were limited.
“We'll definitely see,” Browning said. “I'm just not sure yet. Just working on it so when it comes time I'll be ready.”
Browning hasn’t been able to practice quite yet this spring. During the opening practice on Monday, Browning jogged and walked around the practice field while dealing with an undisclosed injury. He says he’ll return to practice soon, though.
When he does, expect to see him at either Sam or Will linebacker, at least for now.
“I feel like that's something I'm comfortable at doing,” Browning said. “I'm just excited and looking forward to it. I can't wait to get back out there this spring and get some reps at it.”