It’s not often that a college football team – especially one that recruits like Ohio State and keeps a handsome stockpile of athletes at every position – loses four very experienced linebackers in a single year. But that’s where the Buckeyes stand now. Pete Werner, Baron Browning, Tuf Borland, and Justin Hilliard are all with NFL teams, and they depart OSU with a combined 667 tackles in a combined 175 games! That’s a lot of experience gone at once.
While I’m guessing that none of these linebackers will emerge as a pro star, they all have a decent chance of making the roster. Pete Werner was drafted by the Saints in the second round; Pete has the size (6-3, 238) of an NFL linebacker, but he may not have the quickness. It seemed to me, though, that Werner improved every year that he played as a Buckeye, so he’s on an upward trajectory. The Denver Broncos selected Baron Browning in the third round (110th overall pick). Browning came to Columbus as a highly regarded 5-star prospect but never really lived up to that big-time billing; he has the athleticism, however, to have a shot as a starter in the NFL.
Justin Hilliard was on the Buckeye squad for six years, but he was often hurt. We saw in 2020 what Hilliard can do when he’s healthy. He has signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent. And Tuf? Fans and writers have been tough on Tuf; while he could sometimes stuff a run, he also often seemed out of position, unable to shed a block, and slow in coverage. Nevertheless, Borland amassed 288 total tackles in 49 games and, along with J.T. Barrett, was the only three-time Buckeye captain ever. That’s production – and leadership.
So, who’s left and who’s new at linebacker for 2021?
It’s Ohio State, so the cupboard’s never bare – but there’s not much that we can depend on for this season, no really known quantities. The most experienced linebacker returning for 2021 is Dallas Gant, appearing in 16 games over three seasons and registering 44 total tackles (many on special teams’ play). But Gant, a former four-star recruit from Toledo, missed spring practice with a foot injury, so we didn’t see him play in the spring game. Next up would be Teradja Mitchell, a 6-2, 240-pounder from Virginia Beach. Although a four-star recruit out of high school, 247 rated Mitchell as the #2 inside linebacker in his class and the 44th best player nationally at any position. He’s accumulated 18 tackles over two seasons. Obviously, we need for Mitchell and Gant to fill the shoes of departed teammates. K’Vaughan Pope (16 tackles in nine games) and Tommy Eichenberg (who I thought looked good in the spring game) will also be vying for playing time.
In the Buckeyes’ 2021 first-year class, Reid Carrico is the only listed linebacker. A top-100 recruit (ranked nationally at #86), the Ironton, Ohio, product was rated a four-star player and the ninth-ranked linebacker in his class. But it certainly appears that Carrico won’t be the only newcomer in the linebacker room. The internet has been abuzz with reports that Palaie Gaoteote IV has transferred from Southern Cal and enrolled at Ohio State. I haven’t seen a formal confirmation, but I expect to see him wearing a helmet with Buckeye leaves. The five-star Gaoteote IV entered USC with the 2018 class, in which he was the top-rated linebacker nationally and the 15th-ranked player overall. He played in 20 games as a Trojan, starting 14 of them and making 105 total tackles. Notably, Gaoteote IV played his high school ball at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, where Haskell Garrett was one of his teammates on a powerhouse defense. Are they reuniting? Gaoteote’s had some injury issues, including a knee surgery, but his addition would be huge, especially at this moment when the linebacker room is pretty depleted.
And then there’s Steele Chambers. It looks as though he’s moving from running back to linebacker for 2021. In his first two seasons as a Buckeye, Chambers has played in six games and carried the ball 28 times for 221 yards. Even though he often didn’t see action until the end of a game and often didn’t run against the opponents’ #1 defense, that 7.9 yards per carry average grabs attention. But there’s no room for Steele at running back – too many guys ahead of him. At 6-1, 220, he might be a bit light for a linebacker, but he’s fast and starred as a linebacker at Blessed Trinity Catholic in Roswell, GA, in high school; in fact, he was an all-state selection. And in Georgia, he would have had ample competition. It’s a smart move to try to get him on the field.
Of course, fall practices haven’t started yet, and a lot can happen before September 2. There was talk about bringing back the “Bullet” position, so maybe a safety or two will become a safety/linebacker hybrid. Maybe the standard set will call for two backers and five defensive backs. We’ll see. In any case, it’s going to be very interesting to watch the Buckeye linebackers this season.