Ohio State freshmen boost LB depth

Ohio State returns plenty of talent at linebacker, but the future is bright once those players move on. Justin Hilliard, Nick Conner and Jerome Baker have fellow players raving about their potential.

If you want to know why Ohio State might have the best linebackers in the country this fall – Phil Steele has the Buckeyes pegged at No. 2 nationally at that position – the starting trio of Darron Lee, Raekwon McMillan and Joshua Perry wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

There’s also the depth provided by guys like Camren Williams, Chris Worley and Dante Booker, guys who run the spectrum in both experience and potential but will be expected to push the starters in practice. But if you really want to know how blessed Ohio State is at what was a problem spot as recently as 2013, look no further than the three true freshmen who occupy the third unit in practice.

Here is the beauty of being Ohio State: Its location in a football-mad hotbed of prep talent makes any problem easily fixable. The Buckeyes responded to the 2013 woes by pulling out three four-star prospects (McMillan, Booker and Kyle Berger) in addition to five-star talent Sam Hubbard. Although McMillan and Booker played as true freshmen, Berger has yet to see the field thanks to a pair of ACL tears and Hubbard was shuffled around until landing at defensive end. No matter. The Buckeyes simply went out in 2015 and landed a trio of four-stars in its own state. In a unique and useful twist, the three players perfectly slot into the three traditional linebacker roles.

“They’re all really different and they all fit our system really well,” Williams said. “Justin Hilliard is a strong, good athlete and a really smart Cincinnati football player – a Catholic school smart player. He’s fitting in really well at Will. Nick Conner has great instincts at Mike. He’s naturally a Mike in the middle. We just have to get him more vocal and talking, and that’s what me and Raekwon are doing, working with him every day. He’s my little brother. Jerome is a Sam. He’s a young Darron Lee, that’s exactly what he is. He could have played running back or DB. He’s about 210 pounds. He’s a great athlete and explosive, so he definitely fits in that mold as a Sam.”

Incredibly enough, Ohio State plucked all three from the three biggest cities in the state, showing an ability to recruit not only its backyard but also the northeast and southwest corners of the state.

“You’ve got Jerome from the Cleveland area and then you’ve got Nick Conner, a central Ohio guy – OCC,” Conner’s central Ohio counterpart Perry said. “I think Nick does a great job for us, and that’s probably because he’s from the OCC. And you’ve got Justin, who’s from down south there, so I guess you’ve got three different regions of Ohio. You’ve got Sam, Mike and Will.”

Compiling the Nos. 63 (Hilliard) and 139 (Baker) players in the country in addition to another solid four-star (Conner) would be a ticket to early playing time at most schools, but the reality is that there’s no chance of them seeing significant playing time in 2015. Hilliard acknowledged that they’ll all have to follow the time-honored path of using special teams to earn snaps from scrimmage.

“Whenever I’m doing the extra studying and stuff, it’s not mostly on defense, it’s on the special teams unit,” Hilliard said. “I’m getting extra reps with coaches on the special teams units. I definitely want to get on kickoff, hopefully maybe some punt return and stuff like that.”

Perry said he expects all three to become factors on special teams, saying their skill sets fit what Ohio State needs on kickoffs and punts. For now, the only way to watch what could be the best third string in the country is in practice. That won’t be the case for too long, though.

“They’re all different, but they all bring something really good to the table,” Williams said. “It’s really cool to see, especially when we see the threes. It’s cool to see the future. You can see it coming, and it’s going to be soon.”

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