Ohio State football preview: Linebackers ‘hungry’ to make bigger impact

Few Ohio State players received more criticism last season than the linebackers.

Like the defensive backs, this group has a lot of familiar faces working under new management.

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Changes to the scheme also figure to lead to some different roles for a group long on talent but short on positive production at the college level.

Returning starters: Tuf Borland, Malik Harrison, Pete Werner

Rising: TBD

Others to know: Baron Browning, Dallas Gant, Justin Hilliard, Teradja Mitchell, K'Vaughan Pope, Ben Schmiesing, Travon Wilburn, Logan Hittle, Cade Kacherski

Newcomers: Craig Young, Tommy Eichenberg, Cade Stover

Harrison tied for the team lead with 81 tackles and has proven to be perhaps the most versatile linebacker on the team heading into his senior season. The Columbus Walnut Ridge product finished the season strong (20 tackles, four for loss, in the last four games), impressed new linebackers coach Al Washington in spring and could be geared up to go out with a bang after contemplating a jump to the NFL last winter.

Borland finished 2017 strong and was named a captain last season, but his offseason preparation was disrupted by an Achilles injury. He still managed to play in all 12 games and log 67 tackles.

Werner had his ups and downs as a walk-out linebacker last season, often matched up in space with receivers and tight ends, sometimes facing mismatches along the way. The athletic Indiana native ended up with 58 tackles (7.5 for loss) and might end up being more of a run-stopping specialist this season as the Buckeyes replace a linebacker on many downs with a safety in a hybrid role.

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Hilliard put multiple injury-ravaged seasons behind him to be a special teams stalwart last season and logged 20 tackles while Browning struggled to show his five-star form during stints in the Buckeyes’ nickel defense last season.

Browning could benefit from Washington’s arrival, but the junior will face a lot of competition from a sophomore class of Gant, Mitchell and Pope that turned heads in the spring.

They should give Washington a lot of options in determining playing time this fall.

Stover was named Ohio’s Mr. Football last fall after a standout career at Lexington High School in Richland County. Listed 6-5, 235, he may grow into a defensive lineman, but he was rated the No. 7 outside linebacker in the country and No. 4 player in the state regardless of position.

A four-star prospect from Cleveland St. Ignatius, Eichenberg was the first player to commit to Ohio State after the announcement Ryan Day would replace Urban Meyer as head coach of the Buckeyes. He was the No. 8 prospect in the state and 19th-best inside linebacker in the state per 247Sports Composite rankings.

Young is a three-star prospect from Fort Wayne, Ind., who was rated as an “athlete.” The 6-4, 200-pounder could end up at a variety of positions.

Quotable: Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison on the linebackers after spring practice: "Some of these guys look like defensive ends and they run 4.5, 4.6. I think it's a very talented group, I think it's a very deep group and the big thing, they're young. When you're a young football player you always want to use just talent when you can't do that and be as successful as we want to be and we have to be. The biggest thing now is fundamentals. Really, really seeing if we can make that freshman be a junior. If you can make that sophomore be a senior. That's what we're trying to do every day and Al does a great job of that where we're working on fundamentals, on footwork, on punching the sled, on all those kind of things. Because of the talent level, it's a very talented group.

Mattison on playing time: "They're all battling. We've got a lot of players there. We've got some good depth with a lot of experience. They're a hungry group. They've read things. They're ready to go, and they're hungry, which is fun to be around. There's not a lot of smiles on our faces right now, which you like as a coach. I think we're going to see some great things from those guys this year."

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