Baron Browning came to Ohio State as one of the many outstanding prospects in the 2017 signing class. A 5-star linebacker from Texas, Browning was part of an OSU class that included Chase Young, Jeff Okudah, JK Dobbins, Wyatt Davis, Josh Myers, and many more.
Browning spent his first three years at middle linebacker behind and beside Tuf Borland. He split time with Borland in 2019, but finally went full-time in 2020 after moving to Sam. In his new role, he finished with 30 tackles in seven games, with three tackles for loss and one sack.
Browning’s size and athleticism allowed him to defend the run while also being able to deal with tight ends against both the run and the pass. Over the past two years, the Ohio State defense has gone away from the advertised hybrid linebacker at Sam. Will that be changing now that Pete Werner and Baron Browning are no longer around to spin so many plates?
As the only true outside linebacker in Ohio State’s defense, the Sam needs to be athletic enough to provide some initial defense out wide while also being big and strong enough to handle an opponent’s tight end. And if he can also rush the passer, all the better.
When looking at the possibilities at Sam in 2021, the first two names are rising senior K’Vaughan Pope and rising junior Craig Young. It’s crazy to think that both are upperclassmen already, but here we are. Young saw time on defense in the first three games of last season for the Buckeyes, but was a scratch the final four. Pope only missed one game last year, but only saw 10 snaps of defense over the Buckeyes’ final five games.
Neither Young nor Pope has established himself at the position, but that’s not exactly a surprise considering they were playing behind both Baron Browning and Justin Hilliard last year. Rising sophomore Cody Simon probably projects inside, but he has the kind of athleticism that could end him up outside.
Incoming freshman Reid Carrico is similar to Simon in that he can play anywhere. Classmate Jaylen Johnson was listed as a safety by the recruiting sites but there are expectations for him to eventually move to linebacker. Also keep an eye on Kourt Williams, who was at safety last year as a true freshman prior to an ACL injury. Williams, who is listed at 6-foot-1 and 221 pounds, has been talked about as a future Bullet, but was impressing people at safety last year. He is likely out until this summer, but should be ready for fall camp.
At first glance, this looks like a K’Vaughan Pope vs. Craig Young battle. There was seemingly some jostling on the depth chart between the two of them last year. Early on, it was Young playing instead of Pope, but later on it was Pope instead of Young. Last year will have very little impact on this year, however.
The Buckeyes will need more than just Pope and Young this spring. The question will be whether the depth chart will be filled out with walk-ons, or will there be three or four scholarship players all vying for a starting job? Jaylen Johnson isn’t enrolled yet, so he’s out of the picture. Kourt Williams is only four months removed from his ACL tear, so he’s not ready yet to compete.
There is also the question of just how much Sam this defense is going to play. Will it become second fiddle to the hybrid Bullet? Will they split snaps? Or is the Bullet still a pipe dream? Given the difficulties in defending the pass last year, should there be more thought given to adding a fifth defensive back into the base defense?
There are so many unknowns about the Sam linebacker right now that the best bet is to not bet at all. The best bet is whoever comes out of spring running with the ones, and even then he might just be holding the spot temporarily because there’s going to be a brand new battle in August.
Perhaps the best outcome here is finding two guys who can play multiple spots whenever needed, like they had last year with Browning and Hilliard. And then having enough reliable defensive backs so that they don’t need to play both Sams together as much as they did last year.