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Ohio State 2017 Spring Positional Preview: Linebacker
By Tony Gerdeman
There are some playmakers back at linebacker for the Buckeyes this spring.
Photo by Jim Davidson

The Buckeyes may lose a Second-Team All-American in Raekwon McMillan, but they do return a pair of Honorable Mention All-B1G linebackers in Jerome Baker and Chris Worley. Also returning is Dante Booker, who was a starter to begin the year. This all makes Ohio State one of the few teams with a 4-3 defense that loses a starting linebacker and still returns three starting linebackers.

The interesting part of the spring for these linebackers isn't necessarily the three starters, but rather where they will be playing, and where those linebackers behind them will be playing as well. This is a versatile group of defenders and new linebackers coach Billy Davis is going to have to figure out where to slot each of these guys over the next five weeks.

The Players

16 Keandre Jones (6-2 218) Sophomore
Played in six games last season...had four tackles...mostly appeared on special teams...

17 Jerome Baker (6-1 225) Junior
Began the season as Chris Worley's backup...ended up starting 11 games at the Will...second on team with 83 tackles...third with 3.5 sacks...second with 9.5 tackles for loss...two interceptions...Honorable Mention All-B1G...
32 Tuf Borland (6-1 228) Redshirt Freshman
Redshirted last season...enrolled early...earned good reports from teammates (who refused to call him 'Tuf') throughout the season...
33 Dante Booker (6-3 236) Redshirt Junior
Opened last year as the starting Will...was injured in the season opener and missed the season...could have played later in the year but they held him out to preserve his redshirt...expected to be in the starting lineup this year as well...
35 Chris Worley (6-2 228) Redshirt Senior
Started every game at the Sam last year...finished fourth on the team with 70 tackles...also had 4.5 tackles for loss...Honorable Mention All-B1G...a team leader...
39 Malik Harrison (6-3 228) Sophomore
Played in 11 games last season, mainly on special teams...was a backup at Sam...finished with 13 tackles...had one sack as well...
43 Nick Conner (6-3 232) Redshirt Sophomore
Played in just three games...finished with three tackles...has dealt with injuries for much of his time at Ohio State...
47 Justin Hilliard (6-1 230) Redshirt Sophomore
Like Nick Conner, has been hampered by significant injuries...played in the first three games last year before injuries struck again...finished with four tackles...
NA Baron Browning (6-4 230) Freshman
Already enrolled...athletic enough to play any of the three linebacker spots...

The Depth Chart

Note: This is a projection of the depth chart for the first practice and there are nothing but question marks about where players will actually line up. They will likely move around as well.

Will Linebacker
33 Dante Booker OR
17 Jerome Baker
16 Keandre Jones OR
47 Justin Hilliard

Mike Linebacker
33 Dante Booker OR
35 Chris Worley
32 Tuf Borland
43 Nick Conner

Sam Linebacker
35 Chris Worley OR
17 Jerome Baker
39 Malik Harrison
NA Baron Browning

The Storyline

The Buckeyes are looking to complete a six-piece puzzle called "The Two Deep" and they have nine pieces with which to do it. Only six of the nine pieces will fit perfectly, even though it looks like a few of the pieces could be forced in if you push your thumb down on them a bit. Unlike most puzzles where you start out by finding the corners, this puzzle must be completed by starting in the middle and working your way out. We'll see how goodBilly Davis is at puzzles this spring.

Three Questions

1. Who is the middle linebacker?

2. What position will freshman Baron Browning play?

3. What can the Buckeyes get out of the linebackers who have yet to make their marks?

Best Case Scenario

The best case here would be the Buckeyes finding their middle linebacker on their first attempt, and then everything else will fall in line around him. The sooner that gets done, the better it will be for everybody else. Also, the depth situation needs to be settled, so the second and third-year players stepping up would be very welcome as well. A healthy Justin Hilliard would be a great thing for the Buckeyes, and extra reps for the second-year linebackers would be huge as well.

Worst Case Scenario

The worst-case scenario here would the Buckeyes striking out on their first attempt at replacing Raekwon McMillan, which will then see them rotating players in until they get it right. While they are trying to do that, the rest of the positions will be in a flux because until the middle is settled, nothing else is. There are young players here who need reps and there will be a new middle linebacker who will need them as well. If they have to keep looking for McMillan's replacement, then a lot of those reps are going to go to players in unsettled positions.

One Good Spring Prediction

There will be more than one player running with the ones at middle linebacker in the spring.

One Bad Spring Prediction

The rest of the linebackers will adopt "stronger" names in honor of Tuf Borland, like "Tenacious" Booker, "Sturdy" Baker, "Rugged" Harrison, "Stout" Hilliard, and "Brawny" Browning.

One Okay Spring Prediction

All three of the 2016 signees -- Keandre Jones, Tuf Borland, and Malik Harrison -- emerge and earn high praise this spring from Urban Meyer.

Something to Watch For

In order to not harp on the middle linebacker position once again, let's watch to see how true freshman Baron Browning does this spring. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, and running in the 4.5s, there are a lot of possibilities here, but being a linebacker isn't just about being an incredible athlete. Let's watch and see how easily Browning can find the football, and let's also watch to see how many different linebacker spots he actually plays. Who knows, maybe he even helps solve the middle linebacker issue.

Reason for Optimism

Chris Worley and Jerome Baker are about as good a start as you can get in your linebacker corps. And in terms of hunger, players probably don't get much hungrier than Dante Booker. He sat behind Joshua Perry for two years and last season was supposed to be his year. Injury prevented that, but he's healthy now and dying to do something in his fourth year on campus. Also, Booker is one of four former 5-star prospects in the linebacker room, along with Justin Hilliard, Keandre Jones, and Baron Browning. There is a ton of potential here.

Reason for Pessimism

Remember 2012 when the Buckeyes thought they had a middle linebacker but didn't? They eventually had to move a fullback over. Well, there are no fullbacks on this team, so the middle linebacker quandary is going to have to be settled by the guys already on the roster. Until we see someone do it, there are going to be doubts that it can actually be done.

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