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Buckeye breakdown: linebackers

Previewing Ohio State’s biggest question mark in 2019

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

If you had to ask any Ohio State fan what unit disappointed the most in 2018, it would be surprising to hear someone say anything other than the linebackers. While the defense as a whole was subpar a season ago, the biggest struggles were seen in the second level. More often than not, guys were set up to fail, playing out of position with no chance of closing ground to fix the mistake. The coaching staff and personnel were both a big let down, leading to one of the worst defensive seasons in Buckeye history.

This year, the coaching staff has been almost completely overhauled, with former Wolverine Al Washington in charge of the LBs. With 12 years of experience, Washington helped produce the No. 3 defense in the nation at Michigan. He helped mentor Devin Bush into an All-American season, with all three of his linebackers earning All-Big Ten honors. He will have his hands full with an Ohio State unit that aided in allowing a school-record 403.4 yards per game.

The Starters

With all the positions that have been previewed thus far, the staters have been more or less set in stone, with some room for change but a few clear concrete No. 1s. At linebacker, that is not quite the case, as the only guy who clearly deserves a starting spot in 2019 is Malik Harrison. As the lone bright spot among Buckeye LBs last season, Harrison totaled 81 tackles, with 8.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and an interception. He made a huge impact in last season’s Michigan game, recording a sack on the Wolverines’ first drive of the game to force a three-and-out, setting up a short field and an eventual 7-0 Ohio State lead. He would finish with seven tackles. The 6-foot-3, 240 pound freak athlete will be a leader on this year’s defense as a true senior.

Outside Harrison is when things get murky, and with Ryan Day not willing to name starters just yet, it will all come down to how the position battle plays out in preseason camp. While Day will likely choose to play a rotation of guys even early into the regular season, the team will eventually have to find their go-to guys. If the jobs are going to be won based on pure talent, the other two linebacker positions will be manned by Teradja Mitchell and Baron Browning.

At Big Ten Media Days, Day had said that Mitchell was pushing for the starting middle linebacker spot. It would not be at all surprising for him to continue to push, and eventually win, the job by the end of camp. A four-star recruit in the 2018 class, Mitchell has long been lauded as one of the hardest hitters at Ohio State, something they have lacked from the linebacker position for some time. Previously, Mitchell has been primarily used in special teams coverage, where he has been adept at laying the boom on opposing returners. As an extremely athletic and confident player, Mitchell could bring some much needed energy to the Buckeyes this season.

The other linebacker position is still up in the air as well, but should the battle play out as expected, we could see Baron Browning playing a prominent role alongside Harrison and Mitchell. A five-star recruit in the 2017 class, Browning has not quite lived up to his potential. As a primarily inside linebacker, he has been stuck behind Tuf Borland on the depth chart, unable to show off his skill set. However, under a new regime, and in a new scheme that should see a more fluid linebacker configuration, Browning may finally get a chance to shine. His combination of speed and size give him tremendous upside for 2019.

The Reserves

As previously discussed, the linebacker position will almost certainly be used in rotation, with up to five different players occupying the spots throughout the course of a game. Outside of Harrison, Mitchell and Browning, the other two guys who will see a bunch of time, and perhaps even start, at linebacker this season are two of last year’s starters: Tuf Borland and Pete Werner.

Borland is a two-year starter on Ohio State’s defense, and even should he not earn the starting job this season will see more than a fair share of playing time. Borland received a lot of flack last season as the center of an incredibly poor defense. After rupturing his achilles in spring of 2018, Borland was rushed back and as a result, was not playing at 100 percent at any point last year. Now fully healthy, and under a new coaching staff that is ready to utilize its players to their best abilities, Borland should be primed for a bounce-back year, potentially even enough so to remain the team’s starting middle linebacker.

Pete Werner was put in perhaps the worst position of any defensive player on the Buckeyes a season ago. As an outside linebacker not exactly known for speed, Werner was constantly forced into man coverage against opposing slot receivers with little chance at success. Werner could very well start once again in a system that would not put him in disadvantageous positions time and time again, but with the introduction of the bullet position, Werner may get squeezed a bit.

Ohio State could choose to pair their linebackers differently as well, maybe deciding to put Harrison and Werner together and pair Mitchell and Borland to always have some combination of speed and power on the field, all of which will have to be sorted out in the preseason.

Overview

Regardless of how Ryan Day and Al Washington choose to organize the linebackers this season, the unit will obviously have to perform much better than it did a year ago if the team hopes to make a push toward a National Championship. Harrison was awesome in 2018, but the rest of the unit was well below average, resulting in a huge number of big-yardage touchdown plays not usually given up by an Ohio State defense.

This year’s group is deep, but largely unproven. They have one star player in Harrison, two underachievers in Borland and Werner, as well as two guys with little experience in Mitchell and Browning. The Buckeyes will have to hope that iron sharpens iron, and that a healthy competition within the unit breeds better results and a more hungry defense. A new and improved scheme and new coaching staff should aid in increased production as well.

The linebacker group could also see some changes with the introduction of the bullet position, which would reduce the number of true LBs on the field from three to two, with the bullet serving as a linebacker/safety hybrid, likely occupied by Brendon White. This should lead to some defensive formations in 2019 never before seen by an Ohio State defense.