Ohio State football: Veteran linebackers impress new coordinator as preseason plans continue to form

Ohio State's disappointing defensive effort in 2018 was undoubtedly a group effort.

The defensive line wasn’t as dominant as expected — thanks in large part to injuries — white the secondary never found consistency.

But the position group that received the most criticism from fans was the three-man group that lines up in between them.

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Malik Harrison, Tuf Borland and Pete Werner combined for 206 tackles, including 25 for loss and eight sacks, but the Ohio State linebackers were often perceived as the weak link of a defense that wasn’t very strong anyway.

With four-star 2018 prospects Dallas Gant, K’Vaughn Pope and Teradja Mitchell all having a year under their belt and a new coaching staff in place, fans have been hoping all offseason to see some new names patrolling the second level of the defense this fall.

They might be disappointed.

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The familiar trio took the field with the No. 1 defense Wednesday as the media was ushered out, and new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said they have earned that status with their experience and offseason work.

Halfway through camp, though, he also insisted nothing is set in stone.

“I don't know that yet,” Mattison said when asked who would be the starters. “And I don't mean to be vague on this. You know, we won't talk about the starters until we get close to that game. In our opinion, anybody that is doing well could be a starter. With the tempo we're going to see, with the way teams are going to try to attack us, we'd better have a first starter or a second starter and a third starter, and that's how I look at it.”

The three returning starters and three rising sophomores would get Mattison and new linebackers coach Al Washington two thirds of the way to such a goal.

Baron Browning, a junior who was a five-star prospect coming out of Fort Worth, Texas, in 2017 also has drawn praise this preseason, first from head coach Ryan Day on Saturday and again from Mattison on Wednesday.

That came on the heels of freshman Cade Stover — Ohio’s Mr. Football last fall — having the black stripe removed from his helmet this week, signifying his graduation to a full member of the team, so it would seem depth is developing at the position this month.

“Al has done a super job with them,” Mattison said. "They understand their importance in this defense with the aggressiveness, with the taking charge, with the tempo that we're seeing at times and we're going to see a lot during this year. So they have done a very good job of that.”

There is another wrinkle coming with the new coaching staff, though. 

Even if Ohio State’s top three linebackers are the same as they were a year ago, the trio might not be on the field very much.

That is because the staff has incorporated a new position called the “Bullet.” Although it is a hybrid position combining traits of a linebacker and defensive back, players from the latter group are more likely to fill it.

“It gives us a lot more flexibility to be able to play a lot of different positions, and the young men that have done a good job of that is Brendon White has done a really good job of that, and Jahsen Wint, both of them have had very good camps so far,” Mattison said.

The idea behind the Bullet -- which was called the “Viper” at Michigan, where Mattison and Washington both coached last season -- is to replace a linebacker with a more athletic player who can match up with both slot receivers and athletic tight ends who are becoming more commonplace in today’s college football.

The shift figures to affect Werner, Pope and Stover the most as they play strong-side or “SAM” linebacker, the position that is replaced by the Bullet.

“We have a SAM linebacker that is very, very athletic and very, very fast,” he said, referring to Werner. “So the Bullet position ends up being a way for us to have great depth at the SAM position. They could be interchangeable, but the bullet position has been very good for us.”

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