At all three levels of Ohio State’s defense, Kerry Coombs and Greg Mattison have to trust first-year starters. The mass exodus of NFL draftees in the offseason requires them to do so.
Yet at the second level, where the Buckeyes lost Malik Harrison yet return two starters – Pete Werner and Tuf Borland – to bolster a corps of seven upperclassman linebackers, head coach Ryan Day feels comfortable with the guys who position coach Al Washington has prepared.
“I would say, right now, that's probably the strength of the defense,” Ryan Day said. “But both of the other groups are working really hard – the D-line and the back end – and those units are getting stronger every day. I'm fired up to see what this looks like on Saturday.”
In recent years, neither Day nor Urban Meyer could have credibly claimed the linebackers as the defense’s top unit. Not even a little bit. In fact, each of the past couple of seasons, they were largely viewed as lesser than both the defensive line – where Chase Young and a number of other impact players reigned – and the secondary, which has continued to pop out first-round NFL draft picks.
In 2018, a combination of youth and poor development from Billy Davis led to a subpar season at linebacker. With Washington leading the room, they took a significant step forward last year while still generally thought of as less integral to a stout defense’s success than the line or secondary.
This fall, more than any recent season, the Buckeyes must rely on their veteran group of linebackers to lead the way for an otherwise youth-laden, inexperience-filled defense.
“I'm really impressed with the way the linebackers, just as a whole unit, have just done a great job of communicating, diagnosing plays, seeing things, running to the football,” Day said. “They're just a very professional group of guys, in my opinion.”
That’s an apt description for a unit bolstered by so many juniors and seniors.
All three projected starters – Werner, Borland and Baron Browning – are fourth-years and fifth-years who’ve played extensively for the Buckeyes in past seasons and will be counted on for even more in 2020. Justin Hilliard, a sixth-year senior, will supplement Browning at strongside linebacker. Additionally, a familiar trio of juniors – Teradja Mitchell, Dallas Gant and K’Vaughan Pope – allow Washington and Mattison the flexibility to put together any number of linebacker groups onto the field that they’d like.
Beyond just pure experience, though, if this truly is to be the defense’s top position group, it’ll need some additional dynamic playmaking beyond what the linebackers offered the past couple of seasons.
Werner, who’s moving inside to weakside linebacker, is key in that area. This month, he specifically mentioned that moving to a new position could potentially increase his opportunities to become a game-changing linebacker who’s around the ball more often. Plenty athletic at 245 pounds, the potential for Werner to become a first-team All-Big Ten linebacker exists.
Many still hold out hope for Browning finally becoming a dominant linebacker in his final year with the Buckeyes. This offseason, the physical marvel moved from Mike to Sam where the coaches plan to move him around and allow him to operate in space. Browning has shined as a blitzer off the edge and when playing downhill, which could be how he turns the corner in 2020.
“He gives us experience, which matters, especially going into a conference game the first game of the year,” Day said. “But he also brings a lot of versatility to the table. He's got great speed, and he can really run to the ball well. He's strong. He's powerful. I think all of those things combined.”
Outside of what should be – at the very least – a steady group of linebackers, plenty of questions exist.
Having Larry Johnson helps up front, but he’s figuring out how to maximize a swath of talented linemen who are largely unproven, including Zach Harrison, Tyreke Smith and more. Replacing Chase Young and DaVon Hamilton isn’t particularly simple, either.
At the back end of the defense, everybody not named Shaun Wade is getting shuffled into their first major roles. That includes cornerbacks Sevyn Banks, Cameron Brown and Marcus Williamson, along with safeties Josh Proctor and Marcus Hooker. Collectively, those five have started one game (Banks versus Rutgers in 2019). The presence of Wade matters, but the integration of an otherwise new secondary likely won’t always be smooth.
“Listen, there's going to be mistakes. There's going to be whatever,” Day said. "But I think that they're trending in the right direction. I think they're going to have a strong year, and I think Kerry's doing a really good job with them.”
As the fresh faces on the defensive line and in the defensive backfield adjust to their roles in 2020, it'll be the linebackers who need to lead the way.
“I watch them day in and day out practice physically,” said Day when evaluating the defense. “They're very serious about practicing. They communicate well. I like the physicality, the seriousness, the leadership on that side of the ball. While we have some guys that need to be replaced on that side of the ball, I'm excited to see them play. We'll see once we get into a game. But we've seen some really great things over the last couple of weeks that we're excited about, and we'll just keep going. At the end of the day, younger guys have to step up and replace some of the guys that left.”