Five Questions as Buckeyes undergo complete reload at linebacker

Austin Ward3 months
Aritcle written by:Austin WardAustin Ward

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Teradja Mitchell 2 by Birm-Lettermen Row
Ohio State linebacker Teradja Mitchell has been building for this season. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

The summer offseason is in full swing, and Lettermen Row is trying to survive it with our annual Position Week breakdowns. By the time all nine units at Ohio State have been covered, training camp and media days will nearly have arrived — and the return of football in the Horseshoe will be just around the corner. Let’s roll right along by turning the attention to the linebackers for the Buckeyes.

 


COLUMBUS — The challenge is daunting at Ohio State, there’s no question about that.

And while the Buckeyes may well be equipped to handle it, any defensive unit that has to replace the top-four tacklers and multiple years of starting experience all at once is obviously facing a test.

But there are still veterans who can provide continuity. The depth chart is stocked with talent as Ohio State has continued to roll along on the recruiting trail. And a position coach who has quickly proven himself as one of the best young assistants in the country is returning to oversee the reloading project.

There is no unit facing more uncertainty than the Ohio State linebackers. There are also plenty of reasons to believe the Buckeyes can find the solutions they need.

“You coach long enough, these things happen,” linebackers coach Al Washington said during spring camp. “But I’m fortunate that the four guys that left did a great job of setting the example. … I think the young guys having witnessed that and being in the same room with them to see how they developed and how they grew helps. We don’t really talk much about it.

“Our standard is our standard, and the next guy is up. We’ve got to uphold that standard.”

The rich tradition for the Silver Bullets also isn’t up for debate, and that’s what the next wave of linebackers are expected to uphold. Who exactly will be doing that? That’s the first of Five Questions as Lettermen Row kicks off Linebackers Week by taking a closer look at the rebuilding effort.

Dallas Gant-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State linebacker Dallas Gant is trying to lead the unit. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Who will lead Ohio State linebackers?

The volume of production the Buckeyes must replace is one thing, and it’s obviously critical. But Ohio State also needs to replace the veteran leadership that three-time captain Tuf Borland, three-year starter Pete Werner, sixth-year warrior Justin Hilliard and dynamic Baron Browning provided during their careers — and that’s perhaps more daunting considering how relatively little experience is on hand. Dallas Gant and Teradja Mitchell have obviously paid their dues, learned under the wings of that foursome and have appeared off the bench for the Buckeyes, but neither senior has had to handle the every-down, every-day responsibility of setting the tone for the Silver Bullets. The expectation is that Mitchell and a healthy Gant will finally ascend to the top of the depth chart, and this is the season they’ve been patiently building for over the last few years.

Will Buckeyes fully unleash Bullet role?

Maybe it’s just because Ohio State gave its hybrid defensive position a cool nickname that the Bullet has received so much focus and curiosity about how much it’s used. Because if not, there probably wouldn’t be any reason to worry about it considering how well the traditional SAM linebackers were handling the job description, doing everything from dropping deep into coverage to filling the box against the rush. The rise of Pete Werner into one of the nation’s most complete linebackers and the versatility of Baron Browning gave Ohio State the kind of flexibility the role was designed for, so it didn’t need to rely on just one guy to be the Bullet. That may still be the case this season since Ohio State can mix and match with the different skill sets of guys like Craig Young and Kourt Williams. But spring camp offered plenty of hints that the Buckeyes are planning to make the Bullet a bigger part of their plans.

Is Ohio State going to add Palaie Gaoeteote to roster?

The roster management never stops in this new era of college football, and Ohio State may be able to add one more piece to the project at linebacker before training camp. Former five-star recruit and USC transfer Palaie Gaoteote is enrolled in classes with the Buckeyes. It seems clear his intentions are to join the program after a productive but injury-marred career with the Trojans — but it’s not a guarantee that he will be able to at this point. Even with the path cleared for free one-time transfers, multiple sources confirmed to Lettermen Row that Gaoteote will still need to file an appeal with the NCAA before he would be eligible to play this season for the Buckeyes. If Gaoteote gets the green light, Ohio State is adding somebody who has proven he can thrive at the Power-Five level as an inside linebacker and would immediately bolster the depth of the unit.

Cody Simon-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State linebacker Cody Simon is pushing for a role. (Spencer Holbrook/Lettermen Row)

Who will emerge as future Buckeyes star?

Like everybody else who signed in the Class of 2020, the freshman year didn’t go the way Cody Simon expected. But based on the physical development that was clear right from the first practice of spring camp, the four-star linebacker has still made the most of his time on campus by tacking on muscle to go with his impressive speed and mobility. Simon absolutely looks the part of a championship-grade linebacker, and he’ll have a chance in August to make a case that he’s ready to jump into the rotation. Simon did appear in six games last season, so he’s been able to dip his toes in the water with the Buckeyes. Can he dive in fully and become the next star linebacker at Ohio State? Keep an eye on him for a possible sophomore surge.

Can Steele Chambers find fit at linebacker?

Ohio State hasn’t confirmed anything, so it’s at least possible that the appearance of Steele Chambers helping lead drills for linebackers during June camps didn’t mean anything about his future. But there have been conversations at Ohio State about the running back making the switch to the defensive side of the ball since before spring camp, and it would seem like a great fit for everybody involved. The Buckeyes are absolutely loaded at tailback, and Chambers is unlikely to factor into that rotation after falling behind last year after having ball-security issues. But the same physical style he showed on offense for the Buckeyes was on display during his high school career on defense, and the path to playing time is much more clear at linebacker. If that move does become official, Chambers will be one of the most intriguing players on the roster in August.