Lost in the hoopla over Ohio State’s defensive line, and the slow start from the secondary, has been the consistently excellent play out of the team’s linebackers. The unit consists of two seniors in Chris Worley and Dante Booker, as well as junior and preseason All-American Jerome Baker.
The Buckeyes ask a lot from their linebackers, as their unique skill sets enable the defense to stay strong in the interior while maintaining enough speed to run sideline-to-sideline. Of course, each linebacker has different strengths and weaknesses. Let’s break down what makes each of Ohio State’s starting linebackers tick.
Chris Worley — The Man in the Middle
Worley started all 13 games for the Buckeyes last season, ranking fourth on the team with 70 tackles and pitching in 4.5 TFLs and an interception against Sparty. While he flanked Raekwon McMillan as the strong-side linebacker in 2016, Worley now lines up as the defense’s MIKE linebacker. At 6’2” 225 pounds, Worley is undersized as a middle linebacker in the Big Ten, but his speed and willingness to defend the A-gaps more than make up for his stature:
Worley has been dealing with a sprained right foot since the Army game, but he’s expected to be back out on the field Saturday. Sophomore Tuf Borland has more than held his own during Worley’s absence, racking up 14 solo tackles over the past three weeks. The Buckeyes typically dare spread offenses like Maryland to attempt to run the ball against a soft front because of their confidence in both the defensive line and middle linebacker. Players like Worley help make this strategy a reality in Columbus.
Dante Booker — The Do-It-All Freak
Booker was highlighted in this week’s defensive film review, and for good reason: He racked up four tackles, a sack, and picked off a pass during the Buckeyes’ beat down of Rutgers:
Booker is a bit larger than Worley at 6’3” 230 pounds, and quite literally one of the fastest players on the team. Now Ohio State’s SAM linebacker — the Darron Lee role — Booker can be seen setting the edge on runs, getting after the quarterback, and dropping in coverage. Defenses are gradually leaning more and more towards position-less football with a bunch of good-sized athletes capable of doing it all. Booker fits this mold to a tee, and helps the Buckeyes remain flexible against any type of offense.
Jerome Baker — The Playmaker
Baker was Ohio State’s most highly-regarded linebacker coming into this season — and for good reason. His rise to prominence included a memorable Pick-6 against Oklahoma, as well as 15 tackles and another pick against Michigan. Baker has picked up a sack and some TFLs this season, but has yet to make some of the splash plays we grew accustomed to seeing a season ago. As the Buckeyes’ secondary grows more comfortable, look for the defense to unleash Baker as a rusher in some of their exotic blitzes:
The Buckeyes don’t need to blitz often thanks to the pass-rushing prowess of their defensive ends, but their speed at linebacker makes for endless possibilities. As the schedule gets tougher, the defense can’t stay too basic and just rely on its corners to take away everything in the passing game like years past. Fortunately for the Buckeyes: Baker and company are more than qualified to help step up in the playmaking department when needed.
Through five seasons of coaching at Ohio State, Meyer has produced four linebackers who were drafted inside the top-four rounds of the draft: Darron Lee, Raekwon McMillan, Joshua Perry, and Ryan Shazier. It’s not a stretch to say this defense’s current group could add more than one linebacker to this exclusive club. They’ll have plenty of chances to make plays this Sunday when the Buckeyes take on the Terrapins as 30.5-point favorites at home at 4:00 p.m. EST.