COLUMBUS, Ohio — Preparing for NFL defections is one thing, but replacing a truly unique playmaker such as Jerome Baker is another.
Ohio State is recruiting at a high level and has no shortage of candidates waiting in reserve for a shot to start. It has proven it can reload when a surefire early-round pick such as Baker decides to leave early and declare for the draft. But that doesn’t make it easy, particularly when losing players from a specific unit starts to become an almost annual occurrence.
Baker became the fourth Ohio State linebacker in the last five years to leave eligibility on the table and become a professional. Given his impressive stock, there’s no reason to blame him for following in the footsteps of Ryan Shazier, Darron Lee and Raekwon McMillan by cashing in on that opportunity, especially after capping his career with another outing that showed why he’s so coveted at the next level.
The freakishly athletic junior finished this season as the team’s leading tackler, thanks to another rock-solid performance in against USC in the Cotton Bowl. He was a force in opposing backfields throughout his career with 17.5 tackles for loss, and he was just as dangerous at times defending the pass with a couple interceptions. Throw in 3 fumble recoveries and a pair of touchdowns for good measure.
In short, there wasn’t much Baker couldn’t do from his spot at outside linebacker to help the Buckeyes, and replacing his production is going to be critical as the Silver Bullets move on without him. Losing Chris Worley to graduation only complicates matters for Ohio State, which will need new full-time starters at both positions on either side of Tuf Borland in the middle.
Malik Harrison will provide one likely solution, and the Buckeyes will have plenty of confidence in him after turning to him to fill that void once. With Baker sidelined by injury in November against Michigan State, Harrison came off the bench to provide 6 tackles, a pass breakup and a sack in a blowout victory. Heading into his junior season, Harrison is in line to take over a starting job permanently.
What happens with the other opening will be watched closely by the new-look coaching staff during spring practice — and potentially into training camp. Baron Browning has drawn high praise for his work early in his career, and Keandre Jones and Pete Werner are going to be in the mix.
As always, the Buckeyes have talent waiting in the pipeline for these sorts of situations. With Baker now heading for the exit, the pressure is on for his replacement to rise up and eventually join him with some NFL-ready play next season.