Ohio State will be returning two of its three starting linebackers from its dominant 2019 defense. Unfortunately, the one that is not returning was the best one of the group, as Malik Harrison has moved on to the NFL. That leaves the Buckeyes with Tuf Borland and Pete Werner as the returning starters, with Baron Browning filling in for Harrison after splitting time with Borland last season.
As we discussed in our Leaders of the Room series, these guys bring with them a ton of experience. We are very far removed from the Bill Davis days of the Ohio State linebackers, and the unit that was once one of the most maligned positions on the field should actually be a strength for the Buckeyes in 2020.
The confidence in the linebacker group to succeed this season does not end with the starters, as the roster features a plethora of talent outside the three guys at the top of the depth chart. For starters, Al Washington has at his disposal a trio of talented juniors that just haven't been able to see any significant playing time to this point, but are just waiting for their breakout moment.
There has been much talk of Teradja Mitchell throughout his time on campus, and so I don't really even think he counts as a sleeper anymore. Coming to Ohio State has the No. 2 ILB in the country and the No. 44 overall prospect in the 2018 class, there has been a ton of hype surrounding the Virginia Beach native. Talked about as one of the hardest-hitting players on the team, Mitchell is the most obvious candidate to see additional playing time this season, maybe even similar to the role Browning played last year.
Justin Hilliard is another guy who has been discussed a ton, but hasn’t gotten his expected amount of playing time as a result of numerous injuries. Hilliard was one of the top prospects in the 2015 class, rated a five-star recruit and the No. 35 player in the class. Finally healthy in 2019, the senior made the most of his limited opportunities, totaling three tackles for loss and making the game-sealing interception against Penn State. Returning for a sixth year, Hilliard now figures to be a prominent member of the linebacker rotation.
Which brings us to the actual sleepers of this year’s unit. Sure Ohio State already has five guys at the top of the pecking order who will compete for playing time in 2020, but what if one or two of those guys were to get hurt or not meet the team’s expectations? Who could possibly step up and make a name for themselves?
The first guy on that list is Dallas Gant. Another member of the 2018 class, Gant came to Columbus as the No. 10 OLB in the country and the No. 5 player in Ohio. The Toledo native has quickly become one of Ohio State’s most reliable players on special teams, but he is clearly looking for more in terms of defensive snaps. In very limited opportunities last year, Gant recorded three tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and forced a fumble on the goal line to preserve the shutout against Cincinnati.
Somewhat surprisingly, Gant actually played more snaps than both Hilliard and Mitchell in 2019, according to Eleven Warriors. With a similar play style to Browning, Gant has experience at both the inside and outside linebacker positions, but has been primarily practicing at the Mike spot since last season. As a rangier athlete than Borland, maybe Gant will be the guy that rotates in at middle linebacker on obvious passing downs. Either way, he is in line to become a starter in 2021 once the upperclassmen are all gone.
The other sleeper to keep an eye out for is K’Vaughan Pope. Like Gant, Pope has spent the majority of his Ohio State career as a key contributor on special teams. He was another highly-touted athlete out of high school, ranking as the No. 9 ILB in the 2018 class. He saw the least amount of defensive snaps of any of the aforementioned players in 2019, but was still able to rack up 13 tackles and a pair of interceptions in his very limited role.
Pope did not play in either the Big Ten Championship or the CFP game against Clemson, and 35 of his 77 total defensive snaps came against Maryland and Rutgers. Clearly the coaching staff was not all too comfortable playing the sophomore in key spots, but with another year of development, this could be Pope’s year to shine. He showed reliable hands and a high football IQ when given the opportunity, and he should see at the very least an increased role in what will now be his junior year.