Buckeye Breakdown: Linebackers look to reload after departures
As the season continues to grow closer, Ohio State’s depth chart at each position is beginning to take shape. After losing 16 starters, including 12 during the NFL draft, this will be one of the program’s youngest teams in recent memory.
Join Landof10.com as we break down each of the position groups and what Buckeye fans can expect from each one this fall.
Next up are the linebackers, who will need to replace two All-Big Ten second-team selections.
Assessing the roster
Lost: Kyle Berger, Darron Lee, Joshua Perry, Cam Williams
Added: Tuf Borland, Malik Harrison, Keandre Jones
Returning: Jerome Baker, Dante Booker, Joe Burger, Nick Conner, Craig Fada, Justin Hilliard, Raekwon McMillan, Chris Worley
Projected depth chart
- SLB: Chris Worley, Jerome Baker
- MLB: Raekwon McMillan, Nick Conner
- WLB: Dante Booker, Justin Hilliard
The All-American candidate at linebacker seems like a good place to start. Raekwon McMillan has progressed throughout his career exactly the way many expected, and he remains on track to leave for the NFL after three years as a first-round draft pick.
He enjoyed an impressive campaign as a sophomore, finishing as a finalist for the Butkus Award and racking up a team-high 119 tackles.
“Raekwon was really one of the leaders of the defense last year,” Ohio State linebackers coach Luke Fickell said. “The middle linebacker guy has to have those attributes. To me, the biggest thing about Raekwon is continuing to push him and get him out of that comfort zone and continue to have him grow.”
The linebackers also have one of the most athletic players on the team in Baker, although he has thus far been unable to supplant Worley as the starter who will replace Lee. If he puts it all together, however, his athleticism gives him a ceiling that few others can reach.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) April 16, 2016
Can Worley and Booker (or whichever players ultimately start) replace the consistent production of Lee and Perry? That’s a tall task for two players with limited experience, although Booker did play the majority of the Penn State game last fall while Perry was hurt.
McMillan is capable of taking home national awards at middle linebacker, but his impact will be diminished if Worley and Booker can’t provide the necessary support on the outside. The Buckeyes will also have to find someone who can replace Lee’s uncanny ability to rush the passer, which may be Baker’s path to the field.
What to expect
It should first be noted that, barring injury, McMillan’s contributions to this team as one of the best players in the nation at his position seem like a sure thing given his past history, his physical attributes, his instincts for the ball and his growth shown in each of the previous two seasons. Ohio State always wants to be strong up the middle on both offense and defense, and McMillan will give them that on the defensive side of the ball.
As noted above, it remains to be seen if Worley, Booker and Baker can replicate that type of success. It’s worth noting that Fickell, who is not one to mince words, seems optimistic about the group that he has this season. The good news for Ohio State is that there may not be a huge gulf between the starters and backups at outside linebacker, which will put pressure on the starters to perform and will also give the coaching staff the ability to rotate situationally during games or more easily replace someone who is underperforming.
That’s a tribute to the recruiting that Ohio State has done at this position recently. Speaking of which, it seems fair to expect true freshman Keandre Jones to find his way onto the field this season. The Maryland native quietly had a good fall camp and will see playing time if he continues to progress.
“In this program, we’re going to continue to lean on young guys,” Fickell said. “If guys aren’t coming in here and producing in three years with the possibility of leaving in four years, you’re going to continue to recruit the best.”