Pete Werner has been one of the best, most versatile, and most underappreciated linebackers in recent Ohio State football memory. As a 3-year starter for the Buckeyes, Werner showcased his versatility in various ways over the years. His first two years starting were spent at Sam, but with much different duties in two entirely different defenses between 2018 to 2019. Werner then moved to Will last year to live life as an inside linebacker.
Werner was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection his first two seasons as a starter. This past season, however, he earned First-Team honors from the Big Ten coaches. (The Big Ten media bumped him up from Honorable Mention the year before to Third Team in 2020.) Werner recorded 58 tackles as a sophomore, 64 as a junior, and then a team-high 54 in eight games this past season as a senior.
After facing some unwinnable matchups in 2018 as a sophomore, he rarely found himself on such shaky ground in 2019 despite being asked to do all kinds of things better suited for folks other than linebackers. As an inside ‘backer in 2020, Werner showed that he can handle the run just as well as he handled the pass in 2019.
Whoever replaces Werner in 2021 won’t need to incorporate that same kind of versatility, but it also won’t be frowned upon.
There are about six names to know here and that’s mostly because the middle linebacker (Mike) and the weakside linebacker (Will) are intended to be interchangeable in this Ohio State defense. Both linebackers are inside ‘backers, which means they need to be able to hold up against the run while also being able to run themselves.
Rising senior Teradja Mitchell has been the backup at Will for the previous two seasons. In 2019, he was behind Malik Harrison, while last year he was understudying Pete Werner. Mitchell’s two classmates Dallas Gant and K’Vaughan Pope could also get a look here as well. If the defense moves to a more hybrid need at the Sam spot, then Pope could end up inside somewhere. Gant was the backup at Mike the last two years and could be the heir apparent there.
Redshirt freshmen Cody Simon and Mitchell Melton will also likely be involved. Melton is the bigger of the two 2020 signees and could be destined for the middle. Incoming freshman Reid Carrico could play any of three linebacker spots, but will probably end up on the inside.
It will be interesting to see what OSU linebackers coach Al Washington (assuming he is still actually in Columbus) does this spring with the linebackers he has returning. Will everybody simply go to their customary spots they have played for years, or will there be some cross-training at different spots so that he can get a better idea of the versatility and exactly who the top three guys are?
There will also be some mixing and matching with the different classes. Redshirt freshmen will mix in with the three seniors. Where will true freshman Reid Carrico line up and what will he be able to show in his limited opportunities?
Washington will for sure want to see that his seniors are ready to lead this group, but as long as there is a veteran presence in the middle, maybe the need for a veteran at the Will is lessened. The best man will be given the job at Will, but maybe a portion of the spring will be deciding exactly who is a Will and who isn’t?
The best bet here is Teradja Mitchell. He has spent the previous two years as the No. 2 at this position, so you would expect him to fully embrace this long-awaited opportunity. There hasn’t been a ton of production from Mitchell to this point, but his snaps have been limited because of the guys in front of him. Fans have long clamored for more of Mitchell and they may finally get their wish this coming season.
Behind Mitchell, maybe Cody Simon is the guy. He’s athletic enough to play any of the three linebacker spots, which makes him a good combination for the Will. It’s a talented group with some unproven veterans. The versatility is a plus, but some trial and error will be required along the way.