COLUMBUS, Ohio — With two crucial starters departing for the NFL, the position battles at linebacker could have provided the most drama at Ohio State during spring practice and fall camp.
Instead, players and coaches attested in the spring that junior Chris Worley had the lead over redshirt freshman Jerome Baker to replace Darron Lee. There’s been even less scrutiny over the assumption that junior Dante Booker would be the heir to Joshua Perry, with redshirt freshman Justin Hilliard serving as the backup.
Defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell disputed those lines of thinking in post-practice interviews Tuesday, saying that the two outside linebackers trailing in the battles – Baker and Hilliard – would be used to challenge all three players currently either penciled in or projected to start at linebacker.
“One of the greatest things we’ve had around here, especially at the linebacker spot, is the ability to have competition and to know we’re going to play the best three,” Fickell said. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to play the next Mike (middle linebacker) or the next Will (weak-side linebacker). We’re going to find a way to get the best three on the field, and that’s the way we train them.”
Thus far, however, it seems as though the staff believes the combination of Booker and Worley on the outside with Raekwon McMillan on the inside is the way to go. That’s the way the players have lined up during the media viewing windows of practice, and their backups have also been in their natural positions.
With Booker now in his third season and Worley in his fourth, don’t expect either player to coast to the finish of training camp with redshirt freshmen trying to chase them down. Although he is viewed as the clear leader to replace Perry — and even auditioned during the Penn State game last fall when Perry missed significant time — Booker said he’s trying to take the same approach to practice.
“It’s definitely exciting (to enter camp as the projected starter),” he said. “I just keep the same mindset, you know, just keep focusing on my job and going as hard as I can. It’s always good to have a push from the other guys, so you feel like you have some pressure behind you.”
Booker still radiated the confidence of a player who seemed to know that his place on the team was secure. Worley appeared more cautious, having once been close to seizing a starting spot only to have Lee come in and take it for the next two seasons.
“This is not a place where you get a bunch of second opportunities,” Worley said. “So, for this first opportunity that I can get, I have got to try to make the most of it.”
All indications thus far are that he and Booker will both get those chances. What they’ll do with it remains to be seen.