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Ohio State has a reputation for developing elite linebackers, but it’s not always easy

The Buckeyes have established a pipeline to the NFL for their LBs, but it makes it hard for Ohio State to keep reloading at the position.

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

Ohio State football has been known for many things over the years, from Tressel Ball to Urban Meyer’s spread offense, but one constant for the Buckeyes was the linebacker group. Dubbed the Silver Bullets and earning the ‘Linebacker U’ moniker, OSU has produced consistently dominant NFL linebackers year-after-year.

What’s happening at linebacker for Ohio State?

The linebacker corps this season has been spearheaded by two-year starters Jerome Baker and Chris Worley, in addition to Dante Booker. The performances have been a bit up and down throughout the 2017 season, with the most questionable coming against Iowa in what was seen as one of the worst losses ever by an Urban Meyer coached team.

Certainly there are some growing pains to be expected with a new coach for the LB group, Bill Davis, but the Iowa game showed some real deficiencies. Tackles couldn’t be made and the Hawkeyes’ two tight ends feasted against the Buckeye linebackers to the tune of nine receptions for 125 yards and four (!) touchdowns. (It was ugly.)

Baker and Booker both sustained undisclosed head injuries during the matchup and subsequently didn’t suit up in Week 11 against Michigan State. In their stead, young guys like Malik Harrison and Tuf Borland stepped up to make plays.

Strangely, the energy that was seemingly missing against Iowa, was reignited with young talent against the Spartans. Borland, who saw some playing time earlier in the season, led the defense with 11 total tackles (8 solo) and a sack, and Harrison had six total tackles (4 solo) and a sack.

It’s good to see some of the younger Buckeyes stepping up into such demanding positions when needed the most — especially with a few of the current starters expected to make their way to the NFL following the 2017 season.

Next set of LBs headed to the NFL

The starting lineup for the Buckeyes will look a lot different at linebacker in 2018, because this year’s set of starters already has NFL draft analysts salivating. Even aside from their film reels, the reputation for LBs coming out of Ohio State has been so proven over the years, that they’re always a position group being watched by scouts.

Chris Worley has carried a load for the Buckeyes over the past few years. Part of the 2014 National Championship run, he’s totaled 135 tackles (88 solo, 9.0 for loss), three forced fumbles and an interception. He also claimed a sack against Michigan State on Saturday.

In 2016, Jerome Baker boasted 83 total tackles (9.5 for loss), 3.5 sacks, two interceptions and one Pick-6. Through nine games this season, Baker is tied for second-most tackles for the Buckeyes at 44 (4.5 for loss) and 2 sacks -- he also recorded a forced fumble and recovery.

Dante Booker on the other hand, missed the 2016 season after sustaining a knee injury in the opening game against Bowling Green, and wound up taking a red-shirt. Through his nine games this year, the linebacker has 31 total tackles (5 for loss), 2 sacks and an interception.

Worley has already garnered NFL attention, and was among nine Buckeyes named to the Reese’s Senior Bowl 2018 Watch List. Though they still have eligibility left, there’s a real chance that Baker and/or Booker make the decision to declare early for the draft following the end of the season. If that’s the case, they may not be first round selections, but they would certainly be in the running to be drafted.

Pretty big shoes to fill

From guys like A.J. Hawk and James Laurinaitis to Ryan Shazier and John Simon, Ohio State linebackers have had a reputation of translating well to the NFL. It’s no surprise some of the top talent comes by way of the Buckeyes, given their penchant for recruiting, but even when it takes a year or two to catch on, these LBs tend to have long, successful careers at the next level.

Under Urban Meyer, players who have only seen the field for a year are suddenly draft eligible. Meyer has fostered a program that touts its success in the NFL while trying to manage and limit player turnover.

Meyer-Era Draft Picks

Year Player Drafted? Team Current Status
Year Player Drafted? Team Current Status
2013 John Simon Round 4 Baltimore Ravens Signed a multi-year deal with the Indianapolis Colts in 2017
2014 Ryan Shazier Round 1 Pittsburgh Steelers Extended to a 5th year on his rookie deal with the Steelers
2015 Curtis Grant Undrafted Free Agent - Activated from the New York Giants Practice Squad in 2017
2016 Darron Lee Round 1 New York Jets Wrapped up the starting LB spot for the Jets ahead of the season
2016 Joshua Perry Round 4 Los Angeles Chargers Activated from the Indianapolis Colts Practice Squad in Oct. 2017
2017 Raekwon McMillan Round 2 Miami Dolphins Finishing the year on IR after tearing his ACL in his rookie debut

It’d be crazy to expect the Buckeyes -- or any college football program — to replace that kind of talent on almost a yearly basis, yet here we are. While the current set of LBs is inching their way toward continuing the #LBU tradition, there’s nothing wrong with one or more of them taking another year to increase their draft stock.

With Worley looking like a potential pick in 2018, and the quality of talent on Ohio State’s roster behind him, the Buckeyes should have linebackers participating in the next couple of NFL drafts.

Coaching contributions and changes

The Luke Fickell-factor

The man who stepped in and carried Ohio State through the “transition” following Jim Tressel’s departure from the university, stayed on through the first four years under Urban Meyer. We all knew Luke Fickell would eventually move on to his own head coaching gig, but his influence over the defense — and specifically the linebackers — was perhaps taken for granted.

Originally hired on to the Buckeyes staff as the special teams coach in 2002, he was moved to linebackers coach in 2004 and gradually earned additional responsibility as Co-Defensive Coordinator in 2005. Time moves fast, but Fickell led Ohio State’s defense for over a decade (!) and was the bridge between what will arguably be two of the program’s most successful eras.

Fickell drew ire from fans who questioned whether he was the right guy to continue the Silver Bullet tradition. Especially in the post-Tressel era, his defensive knowhow was called into question. But now in his absence, we’re left to wonder if he was the guy keeping the reputation alive.

Mike Vrabel deserves Honorable Mention

When the whole Jim Tressel #TattooGate scandal broke, the Buckeyes had a knight and shining armor at the ready to come in and contribute to the coaching staff. Former Ohio State linebacker Mike Vrabel stepped away from the NFL (as a player) to join a Buckeye coaching staff in transition.

Vrabel stayed on through the first few years of the Meyer era, before heading back to the NFL as a linebackers coach for the Houston Texans. Not just a mentor to the college players, Vrabel continued to coach Buckeyes like John Simon at the next level and continued to improve on the Silver Bullet tradition and reputation.

Bill Davis is now the LBs go-to guy

Now, with Vrabel back in the NFL as a coach and Luke Fickell wading the waters as a head coach at Cincinnati, the Buckeye linebackers are in the hands of Bill Davis. Davis’ coaching resume spans over 25 years and nine NFL teams, most recently as a Defensive Coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles from 2013-15.

In his first year at Ohio State, Davis seems to be getting to work under DC Greg Schiano, and settling into his role as Linebackers coach. He’s got big shoes to fill, and the last bit of college coaching experience he claims was as a Graduate Assistant at Michigan State in 1991.

The linebackers are the heart of the Buckeye defense, and have been for years. If Davis can continue the tradition of #LBU for Ohio State, he could find himself with a new career trajectory at the college level. If not, his time in Columbus won’t be nearly as long as Fickell’s was.

Following an era of elite coaching and performance at the linebacker position for Ohio State, standards are sky-high for the incumbents — for both players and coaches. That’s one of the natures of the beast in Columbus. But it’s also why some of the most talented high school players in the country look to play in the Scarlet and Grey.

Recruiting definitely isn’t a problem for Ohio State. The difference maker in whether or not the Silver Bullets continue producing high-octane linebackers will be the coaches. If what we’ve been seeing with some of the younger Buckeyes like Malik Harrison and Tuf Borland is any indication of the plans Bill Davis has for position, than the future of the NFL pipeline should be safe.