The pads are finally back on at Ohio State football practice, and Tuf Borland, Baron Browning and Pete Werner are finally gearing up for their senior seasons.
In light of that, those three senior linebackers and their position coach, Al Washington, met with the media on Thursday as Ohio State continued with its preseason interview sessions by position group.
Al Washington, Linebackers Coach
- Washington said tackling technique is a big focus for the Buckeyes as they return to practicing in pads. The No. 1 thing they preach, he said, is “eyes up.” They also talk about “putting a near foot in the ground.”
- On balancing playing time in a deep linebacker group: “You just give people roles.” He believes they need to have more than three or four linebackers ready to play, especially this year given the circumstances.
- “Our goal is just to get better every day, and when your number is called, just be ready to play.”
- “I think this particular group of guys is one of the more special groups I've been around.” Said he's been impressed with the leadership and character they've exhibited during a difficult year.
- Washington said Teradja Mitchell and Dallas Gant are “doing unbelievably well ... they're having a really strong camp so far.”
- Washington said he is “really excited” about freshman linebackers Cody Simon and Mitchell Melton. “Both of those kids, I think, are gonna be special players.”
- Washington said Gant is a skilled player who has the versatility to play both Mike and Will linebacker, described Mitchell as “explosive” and K'Vaughan Pope as “very athletic.”
- Washington said Pete Werner has been “doing a really good job at the Will position.” Still lining up at other spots in some packages, as well. “I think he can be an impact player at the Will position.”
- On starting padded practices: “Football is not football until there is pads. You can look good in rehearsal, but you gotta get out there and play. ... You can't have too many padded practices.”
- On cross-training linebackers at multiple positions: “I think the best thing we do is we give our guys experience in all areas, inside and outside.”
- Washington says he believes the linebackers have grown closer to each other this year even though they were apart for part of the year because of everything they've had to go through.
- Washington said Tuf Borland is naturally more of a reserved guy, but has challenged himself to be a more vocal leader. “He's improving in every way.”
- Washington said he expects Justin Hilliard to be a “major contributor,” and getting to coach someone like him after everything he's been through is one of the best parts of being a coach.
- Washington said that while everyone getting an extra year of eligibility could be a benefit on the back end, he doesn't think the players think that way, because they all want to contribute now, which is what they want.
Baron Browning, Linebacker
- Browning said he's been practicing primarily at Sam linebacker, but is still taking some reps at inside linebacker as well.
- Browning said Mitchell Melton physically reminds him of Malik Harrison and Joshua Perry.
- He acknowledged it's been “frustrating” to have to move positions throughout his career, but he's tried not to allow his emotions to get in the way of his development and getting better.
- Browning said he feels more natural playing outside linebacker than in the middle, but that playing inside linebacker has helped him become a more complete player, as he's learned how to play all three linebacker positions.
- Browning said he thinks he will have more opportunities to rush the passer this year. “I guess you'll just have to see when that first game comes around.”
- Browning said he has been moving around and dropping back into coverage and doing some of the same things that Werner did at Sam last year.
- Browning said Trey Sermon is a “great running back” who plays with great pad level and runs hard. Sermon had a great first day of pads, Browning said.
- On Tuf Borland: “He's definitely been trying to step out of his shell of being reserved and speaking more.”
- On Justin Hilliard: “I feel like Justin's the definition of a true warrior ... I'm proud to have him as a teammate. I'm just really excited to see what he can do this year, just being fully healthy, with the opportunity that he has this year.”
- On how the linebackers complement each other: “I feel like every linebacker does something better than another linebacker.”
- Browning says the Buckeyes a “really big emphasis” on tackling and are working to improve in that area every day. “We want to be even better tacklers than we were last year. We thought we had a little bit of a drop-off at the end of the year. We don't want to have a drop-off this year.”
- Browning said he thinks Werner moving to Will allows him to show that he can play inside the box, while him moving to Sam allows him to show what he can do outside after playing primarily inside for the past few years.
- On how he and Justin Hilliard complement each other at Sam: “It's like looking in a mirror.” He believes they both have very similar skill sets.
Tuf Borland, Linebacker
- Borland said there are always concerns about sloppy tackling early in the year, so that's been a big “focus point” as they ramp up practices.
- Borland said he believes Werner and Browning are both “unbelievable football players” who add “tremendous value“ to Ohio State's defense.
- On being the one linebacker who hasn't moved around positions, Borland said he thinks that makes it easier to master his role.
- “This offseason has been a little bit unique, but you can tell, guys have been putting in the time, and the work shows.”
- Borland said Mitchell Melton and Cody Simon have “done an unbelievable job” so far.
- Borland said he gained weight this offseason, but also leaned up to get his body “where it needs to be.”
- On Ohio State's ability to mix and match linebackers: “I have confidence that whoever's in the game is going to perform at a really high level.”
- On the close-knit bonds between the linebackers: “The camaraderie in this room is unbelievable. We're extremely close.”
- Borland said the freshmen are living in off-campus apartments, rather than living in dorms as they typically would, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so they've had to grow up and learn to be adults fast.
- On starting padded practices: “It was good to be out there and feel the contact, certainly.”
- On Pete Werner moving to Will linebacker: “Most people don't know, he's 245 pounds and he can bring it.”
- On redshirt freshman linebacker Tommy Eichenberg: “Tommy's been doing a great job from the day he's gotten here ... He's grown a lot physically. He's moving really well. He's running really well.”
- On Master Teague recovering from a similar Achilles injury as he suffered: “I think that's one of the worst injuries you could have, and he's doing an unbelievable job.” Borland told Teague that the “recovery process is never linear ... there's going to be good days and bad days, but you have to just stay consistent with your rehabbing.”
Pete Werner, Linebacker
- Werner said it was “really weird“ to just now be starting padded practices on Wednesday, but “I think we handled it well as a whole.”
- On the seven upperclassman linebackers: “We just got an old group, and guys that are going to contribute a lot.”
- On his transition to Will linebacker: “I do like it. It's weird kind of playing in the box, I haven't really done that since my high school days, but it is a good feeling, a good transition ... It's just an opportunity to show more of my versatility.”
- Werner said it was fun dropping back and playing safety occasionally, and he will miss that.
- Werner said Justin Hilliard and Baron Browning have done a “great job” at Sam linebacker. Hilliard had already been at that position, while Browning is picking it up well, Werner said.
- “We've gotten so close, and I think that's a credit to Coach Wash,” Werner said when asked about how Al Washington has helped build camaraderie in the linebacker room.
- On Kourt Williams: “He knows football ... You've seen that. He's quiet, but he really loves the game ... You can tell he's ready, and once he gets that opportunity ... he's going to make people like what they see.”
- What do people not appreciate enough about Tuf Borland? “I don't think they understand how good of an athlete he actually is, and how good of a leader he actually is. His knowledge of the game, I've never seen anything like it.” He said Borland has been working on improving his body and his athleticism this offseason.
- Werner said he was “a little bit shocked” that he was asked to move from Sam linebacker to Will, but the coaches “know what they're doing.”
- “I'd like to say that I could play at any position on the defense, because I know – all of us know – everybody's position so well.”
- Werner said he thinks leadership skills are needed more playing inside the box than outside, which he thinks is one reason why the coaches decided to move him from Sam to Will.
- Werner said the Buckeyes need to have more discipline to avoid giving up big plays on defense like they did in the final few games of last season.
- Werner said the Buckeyes don't know who all will be playing in third-and-long situations yet, but he's confident they will have the right players on the field in those situations.