During the first half of Ohio State’s 2021 season, there might not have been any position group on the Buckeyes’ roster that went through more tumult than the linebackers.
Ohio State’s linebacker play was an evident liability early in the season, when the Buckeyes gave up 31 points and 408 yards against Minnesota, 35 points and 505 yards against Oregon and 20 points and 501 yards against Tulsa. Then, the Buckeyes lost two fourth-year linebackers in the span of one week. Dallas Gant entered the transfer portal on Sept. 22, and in the Akron game just three days later, a sideline outburst from K’Vaughan Pope resulted in the end of his Ohio State career.
Speaking with the media on Tuesday for the first time since Gant and Pope’s exits from the program, Washington said he still has a good relationship with both of those two former Buckeyes, who he coached for nearly three years after arriving at Ohio State in January 2019. After waiting their turn for three years, Gant and Pope were both frustrated that they still weren’t getting much playing time at the beginning of this season – Gant played just 47 defensive snaps in the three games before his departure, while Pope played just 31 – and Washington understands why they decided they’d had enough.
“I got nothing but love for those kids. I spent so much time with them. And I support them as they go forth and do what they need to do,” Washington said. “It’s never easy. And I completely understand their frustration. Both those two young men are great people and really good players.”
Asked specifically about the public nature in which Pope displayed his frustration, which included Pope tweeting “fucc ohio state” after he was escorted out of Ohio Stadium, Washington said he did not hold that against his former player. Washington said he did reflect on the situation to consider whether there was anything he could have done differently to prevent that situation from playing out the way it did.
“K’Vaughan was frustrated, and I get that. I don’t judge him off that. He’s a great kid,” Washington said. “So yeah, you absolutely look in to say, ‘What led up to this?’ And ultimately, man, at the end of the day, you look at those things, you apply what you learned from the situation and you keep doing the best you can with the decisions you have to make, and that’s ultimately what you have to do.”
Washington couldn’t spend much time worrying about the linebackers who left the room, though, because his job is to make sure the linebackers who are still in the room play up to Ohio State’s standard. And while questions still remain about his unit, the Buckeyes’ linebackers have shown improvement in their last few games as Teradja Mitchell, Cody Simon, Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers have settled in as their top four players at the position.
Although the back-to-back departures of Gant and Pope led to questions about the culture within the linebacker room, Washington said the players who stayed in the room never lost focus on doing their jobs.
“The perception may have been one thing. The reality is, I think understanding the foundation of the room, understanding the reality of everything, we held it together by just staying focused on what was the objective,” Washington said. “It’s tough to manage, but we just kept moving forward and continued to focus on what we can do to get better.
“We need to improve, we need to focus on the things we need to control, and that’s been the narrative. It’s never been a negative. We’ve always been positive. We’ve gotta take advantage of the time we have. So that’s been our message. And you just have to be persistent in that. And you have to know who you are. You have to know what you stand for. And I think those things help in terms of how do we keep it together, because tough times, they come. The challenging times come. But you have to persist. You have to stick to it. And I believe that. So that’s been our message every day.”
The exits of Pope and Gant have decreased Ohio State’s depth at linebacker, as the Buckeyes currently have only six scholarship linebackers who are available to play. The other two scholarship linebackers, USC transfer Palaie Gaoteote and true freshman Reid Carrico, have played fewer defensive snaps than walk-ons Ryan Batsch and Cade Kacherski.
Nevertheless, Washington – who said Tuesday that Gaotoete’s role could increase in the second half of the season and that Carrico is “trending in the right direction” – says he isn’t overly concerned about the lack of depth at linebacker because he believes in the players he has in his room.
“You’d like to bolster yourself as much as you can, but to say that I’m concerned and worried, I can’t say that,” Washington said. “Who we have I feel real strong about, and it’s just been a daily deal where we have to continue to grind away and improve and that’s what our mentality is. I feel very excited about those guys and very excited about the direction they’re headed.”