Land of 10/file photo
Tuf Borland will be counted on as an anchor at middle linebacker for Ohio State.

Ohio State football: Buckeyes will need more from linebackers in 2018

Austin Ward

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Ohio State’s linebacking unit had some issues at times last season, most notably in the losses to Oklahoma and Iowa that ultimately kept the program out of the College Football Playoff. But I think those problems were already addressed reasonably well given how solidly the linebackers performed down the stretch in the blowout win over Michigan State, the physical battles in The Game and the Big Ten Championship Game — and an utterly dominant outing in the Cotton Bowl against high-powered USC. The Buckeyes may not have been perfect, but they appeared to sort out a few things that were out of whack to help deliver some fantastic defensive performances late in the year.

How did they do it? For the most part, it seemed like simply playing guys in the correct positions was the solution. Tuf Borland is a prototype middle linebacker and Chris Worley does his best work on the outside, so putting both in the right spots worked almost instantly. Now, it’s hard to understand in some ways why it took so long to come to that realization, but Worley hinted that wasn’t the only change in the buildup to the Cotton Bowl — and there did appear to be schematic changes that put the linebackers in better opportunities. The blitz packages, in particular, seemed to allow Worley and Jerome Baker to do what they do best and wreak havoc in the opposing backfield more frequently.

Malik Harrison-Ohio State-Buckeyes-linebacker-Big Ten
Malik Harrison thrived in his role off the bench for Ohio State in 2017. (Land of 10/file photo)

The trick now, of course, is that Ohio State must replace Worley and likely Baker as well, since he’s generally expected to declare for the NFL draft. But Ohio State appears in solid shape with Borland returning to anchor the middle, Malik Harrison standing out when called upon at one of the outside positions and no shortage of candidates fighting for playing time with them. Baron Browning’s name came up frequently during bowl practices, and while he was recruited with a spot in the middle in mind, he could slide outside if needed in a competition with guys such as Keandre Jones and Pete Werner.

Retooling the defensive coaching staff to get more attention on the linebackers also could help, with Alex Grinch expected to be added as the 10th member of the coaching staff in the coming days. The former Washington State defensive coordinator is known for his work with defensive backs, which could allow Greg Schiano to potentially help Billy Davis during this critical offseason for the linebackers.

There’s never been any question about the importance of those Silver Bullets at the second level. And after some rough patches in 2017, there will be a lot to prove for a revamped unit this year.

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