When looking at the 2017 depth chart compared to the 2016 depth chart, there are noticeable holes, but the team is in a much better place now than it was entering the 2016 season after a mass exodus of NFL departures and graduation. Using key departures, spotlighting players at important positions, leadership qualities, and recognizing the depth at each position, we came up with the 10 most important players on the team. They may not be the most heralded players, or even the best players, but they will be vital to this team’s on-field success.
No. 8: Jerome Baker
Position: WILL linebacker
2016 stats: 83 TOT, 9.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 2 INT, 1 TD
Why he’s No. 8: Ohio State’s WILL (weakside) linebacker position, or most recently known as the walk-out linebacker spot, has been home to athletic freaks such as Ryan Shazier and Darron Lee, but one could argue that Jerome Baker could actually be the best of the extremely talented bunch.
As we saw during Ohio State’s national championship season and the following season, Darron Lee was the defense’s top playmaker — walking out to cover or beat up the player in the slot, forcing fumbles, dropping back in coverage, making plays at or behind the line of scrimmage, or even coming off the edge in key situations. The position has turned into the defense’s Swiss-Army Knife position, where the staff situates their most athletically gifted linebacker to the weak side of the formation and against a spread offense, he is typically lined up over the slot in their 4-3 Over defense. 2015’s No. 4 ranked athlete in the country will utilize his elite skillset to do as such in 2017.
Arguably Ohio State’s most consistent defensive playmaker outside of Malik Hooker in 2016, Baker shined in every aspect of his position: whether it’s flying through the A-gap to tackle the ball carrier for a loss, setting the edge on perimeter runs, dropping back and picking off a pass, or executing a well-timed blitz, Baker can do it all.
What makes Baker even more valuable is his play in the biggest of games. Against Oklahoma — in his second career start — Baker returned an interception for a 68-yard touchdown. At Camp Randall in Ohio State’s overtime victory over No. 8 Wisconsin, Baker tallied 13 tackles, including a huge tackle-for-loss on third down. And against No. 3 Michigan, he racked up a career-high 15 tackles and a key interception which led to a Buckeye touchdown to cut the deficit to three points.
Like our No. 9 most important player Parris Campbell, it would make sense to argue that Baker should be a few spots higher. But just like Campbell, if Baker went down, the depth chart is loaded with special athletes who could take over and do an admirable job. They could flip Dante Booker, last year’s opening game WILL linebacker starter, back to the weakside, or give the young and talented Keandre Jones or true freshman stud Baron Browning a chance to shine.
There’s no doubt about it; Jerome Baker is one of the most valuable players on this team and with the departure of key members of the secondary, he could be this defense’s top playmaker and a first round draft pick, just like Shazier and Lee.