Tuf Borland was a four-year starter at middle linebacker for the Buckeyes, emerging as a redshirt freshman in 2017 in place of injured middle linebacker Chris Worley. He finished with 228 career tackles and 19 tackles for loss.
Borland was a 3-time captain as voted upon by his teammates and earned Honorable Mention All-Big Ten recognition each of the past three seasons.
Prior to the 2018 season, he tore his Achilles tendon but returned in time to play in every game that season. In 2019, he started every game for an Ohio State defense that led the nation in total defense, was fourth in scoring defense, and ninth in rushing defense.
In his fifth and final season, Borland missed the first game of his career (at Michigan State), but led the team with 6.9 tackles per game, and finished second in total tackles (48).
There are a number of Buckeye linebackers who could emerge here, but in order to do so they will need the same kind of command of the Ohio State defense that Tuf Borland had. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, there are a number of veterans who could win the job.
Rising senior Dallas Gant has been Borland’s backup for the past two seasons, and even before then, defensive coaches like Greg Schiano praised Gant’s understanding of the defense. Gant has 44 tackles in his career.
From the moment Teradja Mitchell signed with the Buckeyes, some saw him as the next great Ohio State middle linebacker. Mitchell has spent the last two years at Will, playing behind the Buckeyes’ best linebacker each year in Malik Harrison and Pete Werner. He obviously watched and learned and could certainly be a viable option for the Buckeyes. Mitchell has 19 career tackles.
Tommy Eichenberg was a redshirt freshman in 2020 and played in just one game this past season. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was the same game Tuf Borland missed (Michigan State). Linebackers coach Al Washington is very high on Eichenberg, calling him “an absolute gem,” but the lack of playing time this past season could be difficult to overcome in terms of landing a starting spot.
There are also younger players than Eichenberg to keep an eye on. Cody Simon played in seven of OSU’s eight games this past year as a true freshman, though only saw defense in two of those games. Fellow 2020 signee Mitchell Melton played in two games, though special teams only. True freshman Reid Carrico arrived last week and was a very productive tackler in high school.
Rising senior K’Vaughan Pope could also be a candidate here. He has played outside for most of his career, but that may have been as much out of necessity on the outside and lack of necessity on the inside. But if he’s one of the best three linebackers, there will be a place for him somewhere.
One of the good things about Ohio State’s defense is that the Mike and the Will linebackers are fairly interchangeable, so as the coaches go through spring camp, they can look at the reps for both and project fairly accurately how a weakside linebacker (Will) might do at middle linebacker (Mike).
It would not be a surprise to see almost every linebacker on the roster slide through the Will and Mike turnstile just so some film can be created. The practice reps will still likely begin with Dallas Gant, but there may not be a huge need to even see Teradja Mitchell at Mike because the Will spot is also completely wide open.
While the Buckeyes will want to get as many reps as needed for the eventual Borland successor, there will also be an opportunity for the young linebackers to get some looks as well so that a pecking order can be created there. That pecking order will continue through fall camp as well because head coach Ryan Day — like most head coaches — considers spring camp and fall camp an extension of each other. They don’t need every answer by the time spring ends, but it would be nice if they at least had the bulk of the class notes.
The easy pick here is the guy who was the backup at the position for the previous two seasons. Dallas Gant has waited his turn and learned how to lead and call a defense from Tuf Borland. However, when Borland was out for a game this past season, instead of starting Gant, the staff decided to move Baron Browning back to the middle and start Justin Hilliard outside.
That move is probably more of a statement about Gant vs. an experienced Browning, as opposed to Gant’s qualifications overall. Still, it does create the appearance of opportunity for others should they prove it during spring and fall camp.