Returning all three starting linebackers from a 13-1 team would typically be seen as a significant boost to the team’s chances of repeating that success the following year. But oftentimes last season, Ohio State found ways to win games in spite of the play of their much-maligned linebackers, and the defense as a whole.
Ryan Day brought in Al Washington, a Columbus native who spent last season coaching the same position at Michigan, to replace the equally-maligned Bill Davis. Washington has been tasked with turning around the underperforming linebacker unit, but don’t expect his remedy to include any changes in personnel.
Tuf Borland, Pete Werner, and Malik Harrison are all back for another season, and throughout camp, their names have continued to be praised at every turn when the position has been discussed, as has Baron Browning, who saw considerable playing time last year as well.
Washington met with the media Wednesday, as did the linebackers, to discuss the state of the position as they try to get back to the lofty standards set by previous linebackers at Ohio State.
He said he watched only “a little bit” of film on his linebackers last year because he wanted to go into this season with a clean slate.
“I want to be judged on what I’m doing now,” Washington said. “Especially (when) guys are young, they grow, evolve … last year was last year.”
He said the only way he can judge his players now is on how they have improved since he joined the coaching staff in January, which he said he has seen on and off the field.
Perhaps no player has received more criticism at the linebacker position than Borland, who, by his own admission, was not fully healthy last season after rupturing his Achilles last spring, but still playing in all 14 games.
Washington praised Borland’s work ethic, which he said has allowed him to get better this offseason.
“I see why he’s a captain. I see why he is on the (Butkus) watch list,” Washington said of Borland. “He is an ultra-competitive kid. He’s gotten better from practice one to now. He’s a perfectionist … that’s what I’ve seen. I love that kid.”
Asked about the criticism Borland has received and how he continues to hold off the talent behind him, Washington scoffed before saying, “You watch the tape (on Borland). You come in with me and watch the tape … That kid is a warrior, and he gets to the ball … We talk about it every day. The criticism, the compliments — it’s about what you think. When you look in the mirror and you know if you’re putting in the work.”
Washington said he doesn’t pay any mind to the criticism, only what he and the linebacker unit can control, and he appreciates that Borland operates in a similar fashion.
“I like that he is soft-spoken, because his actions speak louder anyway,” Washington said. “He’s a soft-spoken leader, a captain. (The team) voted him (captain). That’s what you want, and I’m excited for him. He’s feeling good, and to the kid’s credit, he’s worked himself to that point and he’s going to continue to work. We still have a lot of work to do.”
Borland is being pushed by Browning, who could replace Borland on the field in obvious passing situations as the more athletic option. Ryan Day has even said he is open to rotating linebackers, as is the case at other positions, to keep guys fresh. Day said earlier in camp Teradja Mitchell was also in the mix at mike linebacker.
On Wednesday, Washington praised Browning’s mental capacity more than he did Browning’s obvious physical talent.
“Being himself,” Washington said of what Browning is doing well. “Believing in himself. I mean, that kid’s a great player … He’s very bright. He’s probably one of the brightest people I’ve been around. He is one of the best minds I’ve been around … He’s progressing, he’s playing the way he should play. He still has to get better. I love the way his mind is right now. All he is focused on is getting better. It’s awesome to see.”
Washington said Browning’s role is playing at the mike linebacker position “and to be anything else we see him being.”
Last week, co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison spoke of the mike and will linebackers being interchangeable, which Washington echoed Wednesday.
“We’ve kind of trained our guys to be (interchangeable), because it’s all about, number one, putting our guys in position to excel,” Washington said. “The other thing is we have depth. It’s no mystery. Let’s utilize that. Why sit guys down when you don’t need to? Let’s roll … because nowadays when you play these tempo teams, that’s what they’re trying to, they’re trying to stress you out.”
Washington called Werner’s camp one of the best he has seen. Asked what he likes about Werner, Washington said he does whatever is asked of him and “busts his tail” to do it.
“He is the kind of guy who is constantly working on growing and figuring out more,” he said. “That’s Pete Werner, man. He’s probably watching film right now. That’s just how he is, and that’s why he is a great player and why we trust him.”
Werner is expected to start again at sam linebacker, a position both Washington and Mattison have said needs to be interchangeable with the new “bullet” position, a hybrid safety and linebacker role that figures to be prominent in the defensive schemes this season.
Werner said his biggest improvements this offseason have come with having “better eyes,” which he said allows him to see plays developing faster.
Harrison tied for the team lead in tackles last season, and his performance against Michigan, in particular, suggests he is primed for a breakout season in 2019. He said he felt everything began to click for him in that standout performance against their bitter rival, which allowed him to simply have fun playing the game.
Following a camp he called his best since coming to Ohio State, Harrison is a safe bet to again be in contention to lead the team in tackles.
Despite the same names having been discussed throughout camp, Washington said he has “an idea” of who will play next Saturday against Florida Atlantic but wouldn’t speak on how the depth chart is shaking out. Asked if he felt he had six guys he can play, Washington said he did feel that was the case.
K’Vaughan Pope and Dallas Gant have each been praised throughout camp by coaches and teammates for their performance and should see the field as the season gets underway. Washington said Pope isn’t focusing on a particular position among the linebackers and is “bouncing around.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.