It's bizarre to think that a position group that lost two of three starters to the NFL could be one of the most experienced units on the team, but such is the case of the Ohio State linebackers.
While the Buckeyes will be without Darron Lee and Joshua Perry this year, players selected in the first and fourth round of April's NFL Draft, respectively, the team has the luxury of replacing them with a pair of experienced linebackers.
Dante Booker and Chris Worley slide into the starting lineup for Ohio State last spring and have remained there early in fall camp, flanking incumbent middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan. Booker is in his third year in the program and played the majority of the Penn State game last year after Perry left the game early with an ankle injury. A redshirt junior, Worley enters his fourth year in the program as the expected starter after barely losing the starting job to Lee in 2014.
“It’s great to have some guys who have been here for a few years,” Fickell said of Worely and Booker. “They’ve been in those situations and they’ve been a great asset to us.
“They’re not one of those guys we’re talking about who are freshmen or redshirted and never played down, that’s one of those things that you can lay your head on the pillow at night and, hey, those are legitimate guys, they live sleep and breath our culture.”
While Worley and Booker have the backing of Fickell and McMillan, who spoke about the chemistry the three have on the field, neither seem to be taking their position as the current leaders to start for granted.
Putting pressure on the pair are Justin Hilliard and Jerome Baker, both of whom came to Ohio State last year as highly ranked prospects. Hilliard ultimately redshirted with a biceps injury while Baker appeared in seven games in 2015, one of the few true freshman to see the field.
“I mean, in a place like this you can’t take nothing personal just because you have the respect for other players,” Worley said of competition with Baker. “So it was the same thing with me and Darron. I couldn’t do nothing but respect that he was on the field and he understood that, you know, I wasn’t too far behind him. So that daily competition made him even better and made me even better. And that’s the same thing now with Jerome, we respect the competition.”
Worley added: “I feel like it’s still an open competition. You’ve got new guys coming in, guys that can play. There’s never an opportunity to just chill. No one is ever relaxed.”
Joining Baker and Hilliard as outside linebackers on the roster are freshmen Malik Harrison and Keandre Jones, though both are potential redshirts.
Still, Booker and Worley are by far the most experienced linebackers aside from McMillan and that should give them a huge advantage on a team short on veterans. For now, they’re the starting linebackers and Fickell said he hopes they feel the pressure that comes with that responsibility.
“We set an expectation so there’s no wondering or, ‘oh, well that might be big shoes to fill.’ Yeah, we’re going to put that in front of you because guess what that does? That puts more pressure on you and we believe that pressure is going to continue to make you grow,” the linebackers coach said.
“It’s hard, it’s tough, but that’s kind of the way we work around here, put those guys in situations and make sure – I believe young men live up to what you expect of them. If we just expect them to be the next starter then they’ll be the next starter, but if we expect them to be the next All-American and great one, I believe they’ll live up to it.”