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Ohio State’s Chris Worley is the best linebacker no one’s talking about

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The do-it-all OLB needs to have a huge game against Clemson’s talented offense.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most important moments of Ohio State’s season came in its sloppiest performance of the year: a 17-16 squeaker against Michigan State. The Spartans, a year removed from a playoff berth, would finish just 4-8 (the same record as Notre Dame, people forget that). Despite their yearlong struggles, however, they were giving a gassed Buckeye squad all it could handle.

When L.J. Scott punched the ball in from a yard out with 4:41 to play, the Spartans had an opportunity to tie the game with an extra point. They opted to play spoiler instead: Mark Dantonio didn’t hesitate for a second calling the two-point conversion. It felt inevitable, really; the Buckeyes had been so stagnant and uninspiring to that point, primed for what feels like an annual collapse against a team they should’ve boatraced.

Instead, Tyler O’Connor’s attempt to throw into the end zone was thwarted, as safety Malik Hooker and linebacker Chris Worley combined to reel in an interception. Worley had snagged a clean pick earlier in the game, and while he wasn’t credited with this one on the score sheet, he was the clear difference-maker at the game’s most crucial moment.

It was the perfect encapsulation of Worley’s season, really: uncredited, but crucially important.

The stats

Name: Chris Worley

Number: 35

Position: OLB

Year: Junior

Height: 6’2

Weight: 228 lbs.

Stat line: 47.0 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 4 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble

Worley has quietly put together a very productive year, finishing fourth on the team in tackles in the regular season. He seemed to play his best down the stretch, too, coming up with big plays against Michigan State and Michigan to close the year.

The Buckeye defensive scheme calls on its outside linebackers to do a little bit of everything, from tracking receivers and tight ends to run-stopping at the line. Worley has risen to the challenge. He’s proven himself as a capable coverage man (check out those four pass breakups), and his lateral quickness has made him adept at meeting running backs on the outside edge.

Opposition research

Clemson’s about as “multiple” as a team can get on offense. The Tigers’ passing game has been electric all season, with QB Deshaun Watson and his huge complement of receivers putting up huge numbers. The running game, while less explosive, has still managed to break teams’ backs thanks to Wayne Gallman’s 5.1 yards per carry. In short: there’s no shortage of ways Clemson can beat you while they’ve got the ball.

One player who really intrigues is TE Jordan Legett. At 6’5, 260 lbs., he’s a matchup nightmare. Leggett caught seven touchdowns this season and averaged just shy of 17 yards per catch. Given that the Buckeyes have struggled at times to contain tight ends in 2016, there’s a good chance that Leggett will be one of Deshaun Watson’s favorite targets in the Fiesta Bowl—especially if Ohio State’s top-notch secondary is locking down the Tigers’ star receivers on the outside.

What to watch for

On short and mid-range throws, it will be on Worley and the rest of the Buckeye linebackers to keep track of Leggett and challenge him for the ball. They all give up at least three inches to the rangy tight end, but this unit doesn’t lack for physicality, and that might be enough.

As far as Gallman goes, look for a heavy dose of him in the first quarter as the Tigers look to dominate up front while steadily building up to a pass-heavy late game offense. As my colleague Chris Jason noted while breaking this tendency down earlier in the week:

Even with [Gallman’s] elite elusiveness in the hole, he is sometimes let down by his inconsistent offensive line — especially in short yardage situations. They’ve only given the ball to their stud running back 11 times on third down with 1-3 yards to go, and he was only able to move the chains on three of those 11 opportunities.

In other words, it seems as though the Tigers aren’t maxing out Gallman’s capabilities, occasionally to their own detriment. The Buckeyes almost certainly prefer it this way: the defense finished the regular season ranked No. 5 in passing S&P+, compared to No. 17 in rushing S&P+. Clemson has the best stable of receivers that Ohio State will have faced all year, but between competent coverage linebackers like Worley and the lockdown secondary of the Scarlet and Gray, it’s hard not to like the Buckeyes’ odds if Clemson has to go pass-heavy earlier in the game than the Tigers would like.