Welcome to Leaders of the Room — one of a few recurring themes we will be visiting here at Land-Grant Holy Land to help you prepare for the upcoming season. With Ohio State’s preseason camp supposed to be underway this week, now is a good time to start taking a deep dive into the depth chart to find out who the Buckeyes will turn to at each position as they look for leaders both on and off the field in 2020.
Today’s unit: the linebackers
Just a couple years ago, the linebackers at Ohio State were looked at as a laughingstock. After Ohio State had produced high-level linebackers like Ryan Shazier, Darron Lee, and Raekwon McMillan recently, the production from the linebackers in 2018 was embarrassing by program standards.
It is no coincidence that as soon as Bill Davis was no longer on Ohio State’s coaching staff, the production from the linebackers improved tenfold. Davis was only hired because he was the best man at Urban Meyer’s wedding, and the Buckeyes suffered because of it — especially the linebackers.
Head coach Ryan Day didn’t take long to address the issue, announcing Davis wouldn’t be retained on the coaching staff in 2019, and instead opting to bring in Michigan linebackers coach Al Washington. The move was an early home run by Day, as there was a noticeable difference in what we saw from the linebackers last year. The first LB that we are going to talk about today was the biggest beneficiary of addition of Washington to the coaching staff.
Browning has a chance to be this year’s Malik Harrison. Last year Harrison decided to return to Ohio State for his senior season, and it resulted in him been taken by the Baltimore Ravens in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Much like Harrison, Browning didn’t play a ton in his first two years at Ohio State, but started to make a name for himself in his junior season. After recording just 37 tackles in his first two years with the Buckeyes, Browning saw more time on the field as a junior, finishing the year with 43 total tackles, which is even more impressive considering Browning only played in 11 of Ohio State’s 14 games last year.
Browning has spent much of the last two years at middle linebacker, splitting time with Tuf Borland. This year, Browning will move to weak-side linebacker, where he will take the majority of the snaps. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Texas native should excel at weak-side linebacker for Ohio State, as his speed and agility will not only allow him to make plays in the backfield, but he also has the athleticism to drop back in pass coverage when needed.
What makes Browning so much different than the other two seniors who will start at linebacker for Ohio State this year is the havoc he can create in the backfield. Of Browning’s 43 tackles in 2019, 11 were for a loss, with five of those stops behind the line of scrimmage being sacks. As long as Browning can stay healthy in 2020, expect him to dwarf the numbers he posted in 2019.
Starting at middle linebacker this year will be senior Tuf Borland. The linebacker from Illinois burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman in 2017 after starter Chris Worley suffered a foot injury. Borland’s major action would come against Army, where he would register a team-high 12 tackles. He went on to finish the season with 58 tackles.
After such a strong 2017, expectations were high for Borland heading into 2018. Those expectations were put on hold, as he suffered an achilles injury in spring practice, which put a dent into his plans as a redshirt sophomore. Borland still played in 12 games and recorded 67 tackles in 2018, but it was obvious he wasn’t playing at the same level as he had shown the previous season.
Since then, Borland has been fighting to earn the respect of Ohio State fans. Even though he showed he was a steadying force at middle linebacker, Borland still faced plenty of criticism last season. Many were wondering when he was going to be replaced by a young and more athletic linebacker, but that time still hasn’t come.
Borland has been so highly regarded by his teammates and coaches that he was named captain in both 2018 and 2019, and it’s likely he’ll earn the same honors in 2020. Not many Ohio State players can claim they were a three-time captain, and that alone should end any criticism of Borland’s talents on the football field.
The senior has a chip on his shoulder, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a huge final season from him in Columbus. With two other seniors that he trusts lining up beside him, expect to see the best version of Borland on the field for the Buckeyes this year. Despite his struggles at times in the past, there isn’t very many linebackers in college football right now that would be an improvement over Borland at middle linebacker.
After a rough 2018, Pete Werner was one of the most improved Buckeyes in 2019, finishing the season with 64 total tackles. In 2018, Werner was showered with criticism because many didn’t think he had the athleticism to be able to start at Ohio State — much like Borland. Now, ESPN is touting the senior from Indianapolis as one of the best off-ball linebackers in the country.
While Werner was able to register the second-highest number of tackles for Ohio State last year, he also did a lot of the little things that helped his teammates make big plays. Whether it be setting the edge on running plays, or dropping back in coverage on passing plays and giving the defensive linemen a second or two more to get into the backfield, Werner just makes all his teammates better when he is on the field.
Browning might make a lot of the spotlight plays for Ohio State at linebacker this year, but the heart of the unit is going to be Werner. He can play just about anywhere the coaches ask him to, and he continues to improve and grow as a linebacker. It wouldn’t be a surprise to not only see Werner lead Ohio State in tackles this year, but also be the leading tackler in the Big Ten this season.