Ryan Donnelly/Land of 10
Dallas Gant has impressed for Ohio State since enrolling early and is pushing for playing time.

Ohio State football: Could freshmen help fill void left by Tuf Borland injury?

Austin Ward

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The injury in the heart of Ohio State’s defense has shaken up the plan a bit this spring, since Tuf Borland proved last year he could be a stabilizing force and a solid playmaker at middle linebacker. And while he leaves big shoes to fill while he recovers from an Achilles injury, the Buckeyes don’t have a shortage of candidates to slide into that role — one reason why coach Urban Meyer isn’t concerned at all about the unit as a whole, even with the only returning starter now on the shelf.

The addition of some talented newcomers certainly helps, absolutely. Ohio State has had some freshmen capable of contributing at linebacker right away in the past, and it’s perhaps not as rare at that position as some others to come in and help as a freshman. But rolling out a first-game starter like Andy Katzenmoyer or having Raekwon McMillan arrive and play a significant number of snaps in the middle without officially being a starter is still an exception. And as many heads as Dallas Gant might be turning, thanks to his early enrollment, or how much potential Teradja Mitchell brings with him, the Buckeyes should be in a situation where they don’t need a freshman to help ease the sting of losing Borland.

Ohio State-Justin Hilliard-Ohio State Buckeyes-linebackers-projected starter-depth chart-2018 season
After battling injuries early in his career, a healthy Justin Hilliard could be a force for Ohio State. (Land of 10/file photo)

From a depth perspective, there’s not much question that both can be assets early in their Ohio State careers. But don’t forget there are two former 5-star talents already on hand for the Buckeyes this spring, and a healthy Justin Hilliard and a motivated Baron Browning were going to be difficult to keep off the field in the first place. Now there’s another open starting spot, and the competition between those two figures to be heated and eventually leave Ohio State in good shape even without Borland.

Hilliard’s been cursed with some bad health luck so far in his career, but the physical upside is hard to ignore when he’s at full strength on the field. After dealing with separate biceps injuries, Hilliard started to show flashes off the bench last season and finished with 14 tackles while catching Meyer’s eye with his work on special teams. Browning actually ended his first year with the program with a matching 14 tackles, and he has the potential to dramatically improve that total as a sophomore with skills that are reminiscent of McMillan’s.

That doesn’t mean the newcomers can’t emerge and add to Ohio State’s rich history at linebacker right away. But the Buckeyes didn’t just start recruiting elite talent at the position this year, and the previous classes have them positioned to absorb the loss of Borland without needing to rush the freshmen before they’re ready.

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