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NFL draft: Ohio State's rare LB group shows how far it has come at Senior Bowl

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Ohio State linebackers coach Al Washington’s worlds collided in a strange way this week.

Three of his four top players from last season’s national runners-up team have been trying to boost their NFL draft stocks at the Senior Bowl. And two of the men coaching them are close and trusted allies of Washington.

With the Miami Dolphins coaching the Senior Bowl’s National Team in Mobile, Alabama, Washington fired up two text-message chains at the start of this week.

The first was with his three linebackers — Baron Browning, Justin Hilliard and Tuf Borland — practicing for Saturday’s Senior Bowl.

The second was with Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, Washington’s college teammate for two years at Boston College, and Dolphins linebackers coach Anthony Campanile, whom Washington worked with at BC in 2016.

Washington set the bar high for his Buckeyes linebackers to their new surrogate coaches.

“Before the first day [of Senior Bowl practice], I told [Flores and Campanile], ‘Don’t take it easy on these guys,’ just busting their chops a little,” he told Yahoo Sports this week. “But I told them for real: ‘My guys will be ready to be coached hard.’”

Then Washington sat back and hoped for the best. So far, he’s feeling like a gratified father.

“The first day [Campanile] hit me back and told me how professional they were, how well they worked, how well they picked everything up right away,” he said. “That made me proud.”

National Team linebacker Baron Browning of Ohio State has impressed this week at the Senior Bowl. (AP Photo/Rusty Costanza)
National Team linebacker Baron Browning, right, of Ohio State has impressed this week at the Senior Bowl. (AP Photo/Rusty Costanza)

The players’ text chain has included nightly rundowns of the days’ events as they work closer to their NFL dreams. And there’s a chance something special could happen with Washington’s quartet, a unit that includes Pete Werner (who declined a Senior Bowl invitation) and represented the heartbeat of the Buckeyes’ 2020 defense.

All four have shots at being selected in the 2021 draft. At the very least, all four should be on NFL rosters this summer.

It’s a feat not often achieved, four players at the same position from the same school drafted in the same draft class. Three is unusual enough. Four is extremely rare.

The last known instance of that happening at linebacker in the 2009 draft, when USC produced four draft picks: first-rounders Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews, second-rounder Rey Maualuga and fourth-rounder Kaluka Maiava.

The Buckeyes are not likely to reach that lofty plateau. Not all four are guaranteed to be drafted, and there might not be a first-rounder amid the group. But in an era where a linebacker (or two) often is taken off the field in schemes, it’s impressive that this quartet is as highly regarded as it is.

Washington has been in Columbus for just over two years. When he arrived, the four Buckeyes linebackers were all at different stages of development. They’ll now go out together, hoping to build on the momentum they’ve built in recent years — a few of them having endured significant setbacks along the way.

There’s the survivor. The grinder and fan favorite. The quiet leader. And, perhaps the first one drafted of the group, the massive upside prospect.

“I wish I had more time with these guys,” Washington said. “Two years have flown by. You just see how much each of them has improved and grown over that time and you just see how good each of them are and how good they can become.”

The long-road prospect

Justin Hilliard was a top-100 recruit in 2015. After seeing time early as a redshirt freshman for Urban Meyer’s 2016 team, Hilliard appeared to be next in the line of great OSU linebackers.

After suffering a torn left biceps that forced him to take a redshirt in 2015 and kept him out of 2016 spring practice, Hilliard had his right biceps pop after only three games that fall.

Said Meyer at the time, “That’s where you shake your head like, ‘How the hell did that happen?’”

Hilliard worked his way back into the mix, but the LBs room was crowded. He was relegated to mostly special-teams work spot duty on defense.

Then in spring of 2019, just when it looked like Hilliard might graduate to a bigger role, he suffered another setback: an Achilles injury in spring practice that threatened to push him even further to the margins of an already stacked depth chart.

Washington had just arrived at Ohio State that January, when Hilliard was at his lowest point, knowing he had a talented but scarred player. But Hilliard was as self-motivated as they come, Washington would find out.

“He made a decision at one point, no matter what he was going to finish what he started,” Washington said. “It might not have gone the way he or others imagined it would. But he has a lot of pride in his last name. He just set his goals high still, and through the process he stayed humble and hungry.”

That led to Hilliard’s reemergence this past fall — and a moving phone call to his father. Typically when Hilliard called his father out of the blue in recent years, Dad feared the worst: more bad injury luck. This time, it was nothing but good news.

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And when Hilliard got his chance this past season, the 6-foot-1, 227-pound linebacker made the most of it. In the Big Ten championship win over Northwestern, Hilliard made nine tackles (two for losses), a fumble recovery and a crucial end-zone interception. And in the two playoff games, he collected 16 tackles (three for losses) and another recovery.

That strong finish earned Hilliard a Senior Bowl invitation.

“I think the last couple of games, it all just clicked for him,” Washington said. “The game slowed down for him, and he seized the opportunity. I just love how he’s done it without making excuses or slowing up.”

Earning the name ‘Tuf’

Tuf Borland arrived at OSU in 2016. In short time, he’d earn his status among fans and coaches alike as the classic overachiever — a three-time captain and forever fan favorite.

After leading his high school team to four state titles, the 3-star recruit earned a significant role on defense before any of his four LB classmates. Borland redshirted in 2016 at OSU but was thrust into the fire early in the 2017 season.

After coming off the bench for an injured Chris Worley to rack up 12 tackles against Army’s triple-option offense that year — the most tackles by an Ohio State freshman in six years — Borland established himself as a fixture on OSU’s defense. And of course, his unusual first name made him popular with Buckeyes fans. Born Jarred Tuf Borland, he eventually convinced his parents to let him drop the “Jarred” by grade school.

Borland’s father, Kyle, started in two games for the Los Angeles Rams during the strike season of 1987. He notched two sacks and never played in another NFL game. He stuck around tangentially in football, working for the helmet manufacturer, Riddell. While there, Kyle Borland worked with a rep with the first name “Tuff,” with two f’s.

As a joke, Kyle ran it by their wife as a possible first name for their soon-to-be-born son. Surprisingly, she didn’t hate it, with the one-f “Tuf” sticking as their son’s middle name initially — until he decided what his primary handle would be for good.

“I always teased him, you’d better be tough then,” Kyle said, according to a Cleveland Plain Dealer story from 2018.

Little did they know at the time.

National Team linebacker Tuf Borland of Ohio State is trying to win over scouts with his smarts and hustle. (AP Photo/Rusty Costanza)
National Team linebacker Tuf Borland of Ohio State is trying to win over scouts with his smarts and hustle. (AP Photo/Rusty Costanza)

His teammates weren’t yet on board with calling him “Tuf.” In a tradition credited to former Buckeyes linebacker Raekwon McMillan, Borland often instead was named “Rugged” or “Stout” or some similar type of playful synonym. Borland won them over eventually with his smart, reliable play and earned back the right to be called by his adopted name.

That reliability was put to the test in the spring of 2019. Borland suffered an Achilles injury that threatened to wipe out part, if not all, of his season. Yet there he was, less than six months into what can be a yearlong rehabilitation, starting for the Buckeyes in the opener against Florida Atlantic. Borland would start all 14 games, earning “champion” mention in five of them and honorable mention All-Big Ten that fall, as well as graduating that December.

This past season, despite ranking third among the OSU linebackers in snaps, Borland was named Sugar Bowl Defensive MVP. He and Hilliard also have had a little extra fun this week in their matchups with Michigan fullback Ben Mason, with the Buckeyes duo often winning those individual reps.

NFL scouts will tell you that Borland, along with Hilliard, is perhaps the least likely of OSU’s four 2021 LB prospects to be drafted, limited by his athleticism and coverage ability. But Washington said that Borland intelligence and commitment set him apart and make Borland as safe an investment as an NFL team could make.

“His football knowledge and instincts are off the charts,” Washington said. “That’s why I say Tuf is going to be a coach. Before I can even get to a player after something went wrong, he’s already there telling them, ‘Boom, this is what you need to do.’ He made my job easier.”

The 2 NFL darlings of the group

Browning and Werner arrived as part of OSU’s banner 2017 recruiting class.

One of six five-star recruits in that class (including Chase Young and Jeffrey Okudah, the second and third picks in the 2020 draft), Browning enrolled early. Werner arrived on campus a few months later in the summer.

Both made their impacts immediately, although Browning’s ascension wasn’t as steep as some expected.

Werner played as a true freshman in 2017 and became a standout in 2018 as a starter for the Rose Bowl champs. He finished his career having started 35 games, leading the team in tackles this season and earning first-team all-conference from the Big Ten’s coaches.

Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner isn't at the Senior Bowl but is a well-respected NFL draft prospect. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner isn't at the Senior Bowl but is a well-respected NFL draft prospect. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Where Werner made his biggest strides, Washington said, was in becoming more of a vocal leader — something that wasn’t always natural to him.

“As a leader, you need to be seen, you need to be heard and you need to be felt,” Washington said. “For Pete, in the past, people would see him and feel his presence. But it wasn’t until this last year, when we challenged him to be more of that vocal leader, where people also heard him.

“His leadership style worked for him. But I wanted him out of his comfort zone, to get after people when it called for that. I think he took major steps in doing that.”

Scouts were disappointed Werner didn’t attend the Senior Bowl this week. He profiles as a possible three-down linebacker who has played inside and outside, logging extensive duty in coverage along the way. The 6-2, 240-pounder is a possible top-100 selection who could crack the second or third round.

Browning is the player whom many scouts appear fascinated by most of the quartet.

At 6-3 and 241 pounds, Browning raised eyebrows during the Senior Bowl weigh-in, checking in with an 81-inch wingspan, 33-inch arms and 10-inch hands — measurements that put him in the upper percentiles among linebackers.

Then Browning took the Senior Bowl practice field and flashed the type of game-changing ability that didn’t always manifest during his Buckeyes career but was a staple of his later-season performances in 2020.

A series of injuries set him back throughout his career, as Browning entered this past season with fewer than 800 defensive snaps. But he switched from inside linebacker to the “Sam” spot outside and thrived in the role, making 30 tackles (three for losses), two forced fumbles and two recoveries.

Despite missing the Big Ten title game, Browning returned to make perhaps OSU’s best defensive play of the loss to Alabama in the playoff finals: a strip sack of Mac Jones that allowed the Buckeyes to tie the game shortly thereafter.

Browning could be the first drafted of the four Buckeyes linebackers. Some NFL scouts believe he could make a push for the latter parts of Round 1, although three teams we polled this week believe he’s more likely to land in Round 2.

Ohio State's Baron Browning could be the highest drafted of a talented Buckeyes linebacker group. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Ohio State's Baron Browning could be the highest drafted of a talented Buckeyes linebacker group. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

For Washington, it has been a joy watching Browning — with whom he’s very close.

“His development has been amazing,” Washington said. “He’s grown so much. He’s a really bright kid with a tremendous amount of character.”

Washington calls Browning a “modern NFL linebacker” and believes he can fit into any scheme. When Borland was unavailable for the Michigan State game, Browning shifted back inside and played “a whale of a game,” Washington said, with four tackles, a forced fumble and a pass breakup, helping hold the Spartans to 12 points, 12 first downs and 261 yards of offense.

“Some guys would balk at moving before the year or in the middle of a year,” Washington said. “But he wanted it, and that’s what he can do when he’s called on. I think there’s not a thing he can’t do if you asked him to. He’s just special in so many ways.

“He’s had so many plays — in practice, in games — where you sit back and say, ‘Holy hell, what was that?’ He’s capable of making special plays every single time out.”

Selfishly, Washington would love nothing more than to see one of his pupils land in Miami to be watched over by Flores and Campanile, two trusted friends and coaches.

Every day this week, he has been checking his phone for text updates and rushing to watch the Senior Bowl practice highlights of his players that people are sending him.

“I’ve been fortunate to be with them the past few years,” he said. “Our whole staff, we’re so proud of what they’ve done. And it’s just that old-school approach they all bring, that toughness and perseverance, it’s paid off in a big way.”

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