Football: Linebackers steadied after early season challenges, departures

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Ohio State senior linebacker Teradja Mitchell (3) and sophomore linebacker Cody Simon (30) tackle Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim (24) during the Ohio State-Minnesota game Sept. 2. Ohio State won 45-31. Credit: Mackenzie Shanklin | Photo Editor

Buckeyes linebackers coach Al Washington knew there was a challenge ahead of him and his unit entering the 2021 season: a brand-new starting rotation with some of the least in-game experience on the roster.

That inexperience steered through learning curves over the course of the first three games, and frustrations boiled over when seniors Dallas Gant transferred and K’Vaughan Pope left the program in an outburst — all in the span of four days.

Washington said those battles of experience and emotion tested his linebackers and even himself, but he still saw the light at the end of the tunnel.

“There’s been moments that have been very challenging, things that are unusual that don’t usually occur. But in the same breath, we’re still in it,” Washington said. “Our focus is on how things will end, so to speak, where things are trending.”

Since Week 2 when the Buckeyes dropped a 35-28 contest to then-No. 12 Oregon, the defense has employed a new system where secondary coach Matt Barnes took over play-calling duties. More so, Washington said the linebackers have dug their cleats into the ground, noting time has been the most important element as they’ve built experience with each snap.

Much of the progress starts at the top with captain and senior linebacker Teradja Mitchell, who’s second on the team with 33 tackles, including four for loss.

Mitchell said he and the unit came together to go all in on finding a way to fix issues in their games, even saying the confidence in the linebackers’ room has skyrocketed.

“I feel like that’s just the state of the defense right now. We’re in a, I wouldn’t say a panic, but there’s a sense of urgency,” Mitchell said. “We understand we want to be the best defense in the country, so we’re making sure all our efforts are towards that.”

Besides Mitchell yields young linebackers in sophomore Tommy Eichenberg and redshirt sophomore Steele Chambers, who crossed sides of the ball from running back prior to the start of the season. Eichenberg is fourth on the team in tackles with an interception while Chambers earned Defensive Player of the Game honors for his seven-tackle showing against Maryland.

Additionally, sophomore Cody Simon developed into a fortifying piece in the linebackers unit, standing third among Buckeyes with 29 tackles alongside a sack and interception.

Head coach Ryan Day said the progressive experience has really mattered in the improvement of the Buckeyes’ linebackers, and they’ve waded through waters that challenged them both on and off the field so far this season.

“They’re steadying themselves, but they’ve got a bigger challenge ahead of them,” Day said. “We got some really good offenses we’re about to play and some really good teams the second half of the season, so it’s going to have to start again Saturday night. Every time they play, I feel like they’re getting a step better.”

Despite the departures of two veterans who appeared to be next in line within the linebackers unit, Washington and Mitchell said they don’t hold ill will toward either of the two who left, saying they keep in contact with Gant and Pope with nothing but love and support toward the pair.

Washington said the hurdles early in the season brought out the collective mentality within both the Buckeyes’ linebackers unit and defense at large. He said there haven’t been dramatic shifts in scheme or strategy; it’s just been getting back to the fundamentals and returning to a persistent, tough mentality.

“I knew who the caliber of player and person that each of those guys were. At the end of the day, that’s what’s going to hold up,” Washington said. “I’ve always been confident in who we have out there. I love the room, I love the guys that are in there, too. At the end of the day, I feel they can get it done and I expect them to get it done.”

No. 5 Ohio State’s defense has tuned up since its woes at the start of the season, trending upward to allowing an average of over 387 yards, as opposed to 471 to opponents after the first three games.

“We’re all in. Every day we’re coming in, we’re putting in the work. We’re coming in early, staying extra after,” Mitchell said. “Whatever it takes to keep getting better so we can win the national championship. That’s the goal.”

The second half of the 2021 season will present a new barrel of obstacles that will continue to challenge the Buckeyes, starting with a conference road game Saturday at Indiana before finishing the regular season with three games slated to come against top-10 opponents.

No matter the numbers, though, the Buckeyes linebackers are building their resumes and sharpening their skill sets. They’re banding together to traverse difficult times in any shape or size to prove Ohio State is capable of reaching its unified team goal.

“Life is always going to have its challenges. It’s going to have its bumps in the road,” Mitchell said. “It’s a challenge, for sure, and not everybody can do it. If everybody could do it, you would see this a lot more often in college football. It’s just putting in the work every day. It’s going to work out well for us.”

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