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Buckeyes experiment with linebacker rotation this spring

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Ohio State linebacker Baron Browning, left, is working at middle linebacker this spring.

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COLUMBUS — When Ohio State takes the field Aug. 30 against Oregon State, its rotation at linebacker more or less will be set.

But this spring, the Buckeyes are tinkering with who will fit where in the linebacker room, and the alignment OSU is using might depend on the day.

At least for the spring, departures and injuries have completely revamped Ohio State’s starting unit.

Chris Worley graduated, Jerome Baker declared for the NFL draft, former starter Dante Booker is recovering from shoulder surgery, and starting middle linebacker Tuf Borland sustained an Achilles injury that will keep him out until fall.

With Borland out, Justin Hilliard moved from outside linebacker to the middle spot, while Malik Harrison, Keandre Jones, and Pete Werner have seen time at both outside spots. True freshman Dallas Gant from St. John’s Jesuit has earned strong early reviews.

Despite the moving parts, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer has been encouraged by what he has seen during spring practice.

“It’s very positive right now,” Meyer said this week. “We moved Malik Harrison to [weakside linebacker] for a little bit to try that out, Keandre at [strongside linebacker]. That’s one of our better units as far as getting better.”

Meyer said the placement of linebackers is liable to change between now and the start of the season, and Ohio State will use the time before the opener to find its three best linebackers.

But for now, the change has provided an opportunity for Hilliard, a former five-star recruit from Cincinnati.

A series of injuries spoiled Hilliard’s first two seasons, but he was one of Ohio State’s top special teams players a season ago.

With Borland out, Hilliard is the man making the calls in the middle of Ohio State’s defense.

As the spring has gone on, he said he become more acclimated to a new position.

“I’m getting a lot more comfortable,” Hilliard told reporters this week.

“I mean, it’s still spring, so we’re installing everything and we’ve got a lot to work on, but we’re getting better every day.”

All the players in the running for major playing time saw the field last season.

Jones, who is a candidate to start at one of the outside linebacker positions, said he is at the point where he comfortable playing on either side.

“The game has definitely slowed down,” Jones said. “Two years I’ve been here experiencing a lot of different positions, the Sam and Will, bouncing back and forth. I have experience now and [I’m] more confident.”

Although the Buckeyes are without many of the linebackers who played the most last season, position coach Bill Davis — like Meyer — said he has been happy with the group this spring.

“I’m so excited about the group I’m working with,” Davis said.

“These guys are talented, they are all in, they’re grinding, and it matters to them. I’m excited about what’s going to happen.

“I have no worries. The next man will step up.”

Ohio State will play its annual spring game Saturday at Ohio Stadium.

As the spring turns into the summer, each of the Ohio State linebackers has been tasked with learning all three positions in case someone needs to move.

“There is a little bit of difference in the different three positions, but coach Davis has been doing a really good job of teaching every position,” Hilliard said. “So we are are versatile and can play every position.”

Contact Nicholas Piotrowicz at: npiotrowicz@theblade.com, 419-724-6110, or on Twitter @NickPiotrowicz.

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