COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Ohio State lost an alarming amount of talented linebackers from last season. Veterans Baron Browning, Pete Werner, Justin Hilliard and Tuf Borland played in more than 150 games combined. All of them were either drafted or signed to an NFL roster.
Ohio State is used to reloading and going about business as usual. But the last time Ohio State lost this many high-caliber players at one position, the result was abysmal.
Ohio State ranked No. 1 in pass defense in 2019 thanks to Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette and Jordan Fuller, as well as defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley. All three players left for the NFL while Hafley took the head coaching job at Boston College, and Ohio State became the sixth-worst passing defense in 2020.
In fairness to second-year defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs, OSU did not have a full offseason to prepare last year and the Buckeyes lost cornerbacks Cam Brown and Marcus Williamson to injury. This year’s group of linebackers are healthy, got to have a full spring camp and have some game experience.
“I’m very comfortable with the group, comfortable with their character, their talent,” linebackers coach Al Washington said. “They’ve put themselves in position to do everything up to this point, so I’m very confident in each of those guys.”
Teradja Mitchell, Dallas Gant and K’Vaughan Pope will be the senior leaders in this group and the players who return with the most game experience.
“At Ohio State we reload; you know, next man up,” Mitchell said. “Everybody has that mindset everyday day to go get that starting job.”
Rotating in with those seniors, or possibly even starting, will be sophomores Cody Simon, Tommy Eichenberg and Craig Young, but Young has been getting reps with the defensive backs so his future at linebacker is still to be determined.
Two other players to keep an eye on is USC transfer Palaie Gaoteote and Steele Chambers.
Gaoteote spent three seasons with the Trojans playing in 20 games where he recorded 105 tackles. But the former five-star recruit only played two games during the 2020 season due to a concussion and his availability is in question as he awaits an eligibility ruling from the NCAA.
“Palaie is just a great person and a really hard-working kid,” Washington said. “The group has really embraced him, so hopefully it works out but I just love the fact that he’s around. He gives off great energy and he’s definitely a great fit.”
Meanwhile, Chambers switched from running back to linebacker, a position he hasn’t played since high school.
“It’s hard switching positions especially loving running back but at the end of the day I feel like I’m just doing what’s best for me,” Chambers said. “I feel like I can see different formations, different routes by running backs and I’m able to translate that from defense, so I’m able to react quicker.”
Washington said he recruited Chambers in high school to play linebacker at OSU and was thrilled when the former four-star running back agreed to switch to linebacker.
“I’ve been recruiting Steele for a long time,” Washington said. “He’s a great addition. Just a great kid who works his tail off . . . he’s learning the playbook and doing his thing and he’s a really good player. He’s always been athletic and I’m really excited about Steele.”