Ohio State’s linebackers should actually be really good heading into 2020. While the unit lost its top guy in Malik Harrison to the NFL Draft, it returns a pair of multi-year starters in Tuf Borland and Pete Werner — both of whom improved drastically in 2019 — and a potential star in Baron Browning, who split time at MLB with Borland last season but will now fill Harrison’s vacant spot in a full-time role.
The group should be one of the strengths of the Buckeyes’ defense as we (hopefully) head into what will be a weird, Big Ten-only campaign, and the talent at the position doesn’t stop with the starters. The team also features a myriad of highly-touted players waiting in the wings, including the likes of Dallas Gant, Teradja Mitchell, K’Vaughan Pope and Justin Hilliard — all of whom were four or five-star prospects who could all see their fair share of playing time in 2020.
With that being said, what if you could make this talented group of linebackers even better? While each of the guys on the current roster bring their own unique skillset to the table, what if you could add in a guy with a proven track record of success? If Ryan Day had the option to bring back one former Ohio State linebacker to add to this year’s unit, who would be at the top of that wish list?
There is no shortage of options to choose from in this regard. You could start by looking through the history books at some of the greatest linebackers ever to don the Scarlet and Gray.
A popular option for long-time fans of Ohio State would likely be Chris Spielman, a two-time All-American and Lombardi Award winner who racked up an astounding 546 tackles in his time in Columbus. You could also look at a guy like Andy Katzenmoyer, the first true freshman ever to start at linebacker for the Buckeyes who later became a consensus All-American and Dick Butkus Award winner.
Moving more into the 2000s, you run into options like A.J. Hawk and James Laurinaitis. Hawk was a member of the 2002 BCS National Championship team as a freshman, winning the Lombardi Award following his senior season in 2005 and being twice named a unanimous First Team All-American. Laurinaitis had an incredible career at Ohio State, winning the Bronco Nagurski Trophy, the Butkus Award, and the Lott Trophy over the span of his four years playing in Columbus.
Which brings us to more of the guys that I really got a chance to enjoy watching during my tenure as an Ohio State fan that only began shortly before I arrived on campus (not a ton of people in Long Island really pay attention to college football, unfortunately).
The more recent wave of outstanding Buckeye linebackers really begins with Ryan Shazier. Seemingly always in the right spot to make the big play, Shazier started every game for Ohio State in 2012, returning a game-winning interception for a touchdown against Penn State and making the game-saving tackle on 4th-and-inches on the goal line against Wisconsin in that same season. Shaz would go on to be named a First Team All-American, finishing his OSU career with 316 total tackles, 45.5 tackles for loss and 15 sacks.
Ohio State had a pretty good run of linebackers from that point up until the disaster that was position coach Bill Davis, which included some very talented players among the likes of Darron Lee, Raekwon McMillan and Jerome Baker. Lee and McMillan were both members of the National Championship team in 2014, with Lee being named the Defensive MVP of the Sugar Bowl against Alabama in the prior contest. Baker was a guy I felt personally was always a bit underrated, as he went on to finish his mainly two playing seasons at OSU with 159 total tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks.
There are a lot of great options on the table, but personally, I somewhat surprisingly think I would go with Raekwon McMillan as my option to join this year's squad. Call it recency bias and the fact that I actually got to watch his career in person at The Shoe, but I really loved McMillan’s game. He was a great field general at the center of the Ohio State defense, and was one of the most sure tacklers on the team with a nose for the ball. With all due respect to Borland, I think his skillset would slot in real well alongside Browning and Werner to make a formidable group of linebackers in 2020.
I wrestled between he and Shaz, but I think either would be a more than suitable option.
So, let’s hear it.