Time might not heal all wounds. It did the trick for Baron Browning, though.
He once had a sense of angst and disappointment when former Ohio State linebackers coach Billy Davis took him from the outside and plopped him in the middle to back up Tuf Borland. A five-star linebacker out of Texas who had not lined up inside, Browning admits he felt “a little frustrated” since he believed it took him both out of his comfort zone and away from what he believes he did best. The shift to the Mike linebacker spot forced him to make calls, align the defense ahead of the snap and lessened how many plays he could make in space.
Now a senior, though, Browning looks back on those days in the middle and sees the positives.
“I adapted and I grew in that role over the last three years, and it helped me a lot to see the bigger picture of the defense,” Browning said on Thursday afternoon. “So I feel now making that switch to outside is a lot easier on me because I know how the guys around me work.”
He can earnestly say those words in a believable fashion because, after multiple years in the middle, second-year position coach Al Washington decided to put Pete Werner at weakside linebacker. The move gives Browning an opportunity to play strongside linebacker, along with sixth-year senior Justin Hilliard, where he’ll line up in the tackle box less often.
Having played more in space on the outside when he starred as a high schooler, he has made it no secret that he would like a similar list of responsibilities as a Buckeye. Browning has hoped for this type of role for years. In 2020, he should finally get what he has long desired with a position he feels “very comfortable” playing.
“I feel like it just allows me to show my versatility that I can rush, that I can cover, I can play inside the box and I can play outside. I'm excited.”– Baron Browning on his new role
Though expected to primarily play Sam with Werner at Will and Borland at Mike, Browning won’t do exactly what Washington and Greg Mattison enlisted Werner for. The 6-foot-3, 240-pounder says he’s been working on “some of the similar things” Werner did at Sam last year. However, he expects to have more pass-rushing opportunities than he did a year ago – which makes sense considering, when unleashed on the edge, he’s been a terror to offenses – and Washington implied he’ll take some snaps lined up inside the box, too.
In different packages, Browning said, he’ll play either on the outside or inside, even if he’s primarily a Sam linebacker going forward.
“With Baron's athleticism, he can play inside. He can play outside,” Washington said. “He can do a lot of different things.”
Based on their comments on Tuesday, the biggest certainty is the Buckeyes wants to move Browning around to let him make plays in space in ways they weren’t doing as much in recent years. With a chiseled, long-armed, 6-foot-3 frame, the coaches plan to unlock his potential by letting him do a little bit of everything.
“I just think it shows I'm versatile and that I have range, especially with me just being able to run sideline to sideline, that I'm just a pure athlete,” Browning said. “There's not one position you can label me as. I can fit in anywhere, whether that's outside linebacker, stand-up rushing or middle linebacker.”
For the past few years, a not-so-insignificant chunk of Ohio State fans wondered why Browning hadn’t developed into the stud they expected. Talent evaluators viewed him as the 11th-best overall prospect and No. 1 linebacker in the 2017 recruiting cycle. Of the other top-11 players in that class, the Buckeyes signed two – Chase Young and Jeff Okudah – who have both already been unanimous All-Americans and top-three NFL draft picks.
Browning, despite his obvious physical abilities, found himself on a different developmental track than Ohio State’s other five-star recruits in his class – Young, Okudah, Shaun Wade and Wyatt Davis. They have all either been taken in the first round or are destined to become first-round picks. Browning, meanwhile, hasn’t even been a full-time starter before. He recorded 43 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and five sacks in a career-high 368 snaps last year, but he did so as a backup while rotating with Borland.
A 2017 coaching change under Urban Meyer, who hired Billy Davis when Luke Fickell left for Cincinnati, led to his move to and subsequent uncomfortable feelings at the Mike linebacker position. For three years, he remained behind fellow linebackers on the depth chart. Three years in a row, he wasn't let loose the way he had desired.
This fall, Washington and Mattison hope, Browning will come closer to reaching his ceiling. One of the intentions of his new role as an outside linebacker is to allow him to shine in a way that showcases what once made him one of the nation's most coveted recruits.
“I feel like it just allows me to show my versatility that I can rush, that I can cover, I can play inside the box and I can play outside,” Browning said. “I'm excited.”
At strongside linebacker, he's competing for snaps with Hilliard, who played the entire 2019 season at the position as Werner’s backup. Browning doesn’t have matching experience at Sam, but given his background on the outside, he’s used to what Washington and Mattison are asking of him.
“Baron, he's an athletic kid. He's a smart football player,” Werner said. “He's picked up on it very well.”