LOOKING BACK: Even with the loss of Dante Booker to injury, this position group deserves a lot of credit for their play collectively last season. Raekwon McMillan departs and that is going to be a HUGE loss for Ohio State, make no mistake about it. There is also the loss of position coach Luke Fickell, but his replacement, Bill Davis, has a strong resume. This group was equally impressive against the run or the pass last season, but they were not real effective blitzing the quarterback.
THE RETURNING STARTERS: Ohio State returns two players who are both effective, yet totally different players. With Chris Worley, they have a solid, steady player that rarely gets caught out of position. You know what you're getting with Worley, and while there isn't a lot of upside, there is a very high floor. With Jerome Baker, there is plenty of flash and dash, but he tends to over-pursue and can be fooled. But if he takes a leap forward, this could be Ohio State's next All-American linebacker. Baker has the most potential of the two, and has the highest ceiling, but I think he has the higher bust out floor. Personally, I expect Baker to be a star this season.
THE INCOMING FRESHMAN: They bring in two guys in Baron Browning and Pete Werner, with Browning having the edge to get on the field first. Browning enrolled early and will go through the strength and conditioning program, as well as spring football, and I think he will get time next year. If Werner can show up in June and beat out some of the returning guys for playing time, that will tell us a lot about him AND THEM. I expect Werner to redshirt. I would expect Browning to have a freshman season similar to what McMillan had as a freshman, alternating in and playing in blowouts.
THE MIDDLE LINEBACKER STARTER: This is where the rubber meets the road for the position group, and here Ohio State has to replace an All-American (Raekwon McMillan) with an unproven, untested player. Who are the candidates? Basically everyone not named Baker and Worley. I think Dante Booker has the size and frame to play the position, but is he physical enough? If he's soft on the outside, can he be moved inside? We are going to see. Can Justin Hilliard get healthy enough to play? Can Nick Conner play? Keandre Jones seems to be the next Baker/Lee/Shazier, but if he's your third best linebacker can you devise a way to play him with the two starters? Heard great things about Tuf Borland, but is he ready? Malik Harrison? Can Browning take this spot? Will Werner blow past everyone? I have zero answers to any of these questions, and new coach Bill Davis needs that answer before they line up and play Indiana.
THE OUTLOOK: With Greg Schiano running the defense, and Bill Davis under him as the linebackers coach, the coaching is excellent. The loss of Fickell might be felt in the recruiting room, but the on-field coaching of the linebackers should be at the same high level. I like the way Worley is steady and consistent, just as I like the energy, enthusiasm and flash of Baker. These two can play anywhere in America. Can they find a MIKE backer? These players were all highly rated, and they are going to be coached up, so it's reasonable to expect somebody will step up and be at least serviceable at the position. These guys should be strong against the run, and they're good on pass coverage. They aren't good blitzers and don't get to the quarterback enough, but maybe Baker takes a leap as a sack-master with the year of experience. There are question marks, like middle linebacker and depth, but Baker and Worley are top shelf. All in all, this position group is strong.