COLUMBUS, Ohio — Another starting position is unexpectedly up for grabs, and this one is right in the heart of the Ohio State defense.
There will be no panic for the Buckeyes, however, despite how important Tuf Borland was to their plans this season. That’s because there’s the possibility the sophomore might return and the fact that a pair of former 5-star recruits are in line to replace him.
Some details still need to be sorted out. The severity of the Achilles tendon injury Borland sustained last week in spring practice and the potential recovery time are unclear, and the answers there obviously are important. But with Ohio State anticipating that Borland would provide a stable foundation for a unit that was undergoing renovations on either side of him, it looks at this point like the linebackers are instead facing a complete overhaul.
“Linebackers? Not concerned,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “There’s some talented cats there.
“Tuf Borland, that just breaks your heart because he’s one of the best kids I’ve ever been around in my life and a very good player. … The good thing is that there’s an opportunity for somebody to step up and go there. That position, they’re not perfect but they don’t have to be. They’re trying, and I kind of like that position right now.”
Considering some of the struggles a year ago and Borland’s key role in helping that unit rally down the stretch, it certainly qualifies as something of a surprise that Ohio State would be so confident just a few days after losing its only healthy, returning starter.
But if a couple of once-coveted recruits live up to their potential as they now compete for a more prominent role, the Buckeyes could wind up moving on rather seamlessly until Borland comes back.
Justin Hilliard appeared to be getting the first crack at that job. And after battling injuries of his own throughout his career, it appears like the highest-rated recruit in Ohio State’s 2015 signing class could be in a position finally to tap into his outsized potential. And right alongside him is another recruiting gem in Baron Browning, the No. 11 overall player in the country in the 2017 class.
As far as building blocks go, the Buckeyes probably couldn’t ask for much more as they try to replace Borland’s steady production in the middle.
“[Hilliard] was one of our best special-teams players a year ago, a very accountable guy, having a good spring so far,” Meyer said. “I’m a Justin Hilliard fan. I hope he continues to grow as a defensive player.
“[Browning] is as talented of a linebacker as has ever walked through these doors. He’s a freak that can do it all. Great young man, did not play very well early in the season and was just out of his comfort zone. By the end of the season he was really contributing in a lot of areas and on special teams and should have played some defense, but he just didn’t earn that. He’s got it all, now. He’s got A to Z, intelligent guy, good person and God has blessed him with an incredible skill set.”
Both of them are still relatively unproven when it really counts, and that isn’t going to change until the fall.
But now there should be an even greater sense of urgency for both of them in the spring as Meyer suddenly finds himself working on a new plan for his linebackers.
“You’ve got some good bodies, but we’re not set to say who is going to be in what position,” Meyer said. “It’s our job to get the best three of them out there
“[Borland] is going to miss some time, but he’s a little like J.T. Barrett. If you say he’s out for a while, he’s not going to be out that long.”
In the meantime, another starting job is open for competition.
And it’s shaping up to be a 5-star battle.