Baron Browning may be four years removed from high school, but he will lean on his Kennedale High roots in his final season with the Buckeyes.
Although the most experienced unit in the defense, the Ohio State linebacking corps will see familiar players lining up at new spots. The graduate Browning is no exception to the shift as he will be playing outside as a strong side linebacker, a spot he referred to as his “more natural position” having played it in high school.
Senior linebacker Pete Werner filled the position a year ago, but his move inside to weak side linebacker has created a vacancy in the second level for Browning to fill.
“It’s more just looking at what we’re trying to do on defense — playing to each guys’ strength and how we can be more creative,” linebackers coach Al Washington said. “Baron’s still a linebacker for us. He’ll be outside. He’ll still be inside too.”
Playing on the inside a year ago, Browning said the initial move inside was different but he ultimately adapted.
Washington said that Browning will still play on the inside at times this year — an opportunity that will ask Browning to be multi-faceted.
“I’ve been playing on the outside and I’ve been still playing on the inside here and there in certain packages, so I feel like it’s just allowed me to show my versatility that I can rush, that I can cover, I can play inside the box and I can play outside, so I’m excited,” Browning said.
The position movement that has impacted his career and may define his season has prevented Browning from carving a niche in a specific spot in the second level.
Despite changes, the linebacker is only focused on things he can control.
“I feel like it would be normal to have that frustration, but that frustration, I can’t let it get in the way of my development as a player to get better every day,” Browning said. “You have to put your emotions aside and control your emotions, so I think I’ve done a great job at getting better at and focusing on getting better every day to help the team anyway they need me to.”
Frustration is something that Browning said he felt back when he was a freshman coming into a new position at the middle linebacker spot.
Through experience, however, Browning said he has matured during his time at Ohio State.
“I adapted and I grew in that role over the last three years, and it has helped me a lot to see the bigger picture of the defense,” Browning said. “I feel like, now, making the switch to outside is a lot easier on me, because I know how the guys around me work.”
In filling the position Werner dominated a year ago, Browning will be asked to play to a different skill set than he did a year ago.
Browning said he will do similar things to what Werner, who recorded 64 tackles and three pass deflections in 2019, did at the position.
“I think it just shows that I’m versatile and that I have range and — especially with me being able to run sideline to sideline — that I’m a pure athlete,” Browning said. “There’s not one position you can just label me as. I can fit in anywhere — whether that’s outside linebacker, standup rusher or middle linebacker.”
Browning will likely see graduate Justin Hilliard, who played the position behind Werner last year, take snaps at the strong side spot throughout the season as well.
Werner, who felt he could have improved if he had stayed at the strong side, said the switch allows for more versatility in the defense.
In terms of the communication with his two successors at strong side linebacker, Werner said that he has offered a bit of advice, but Hilliard’s experience and Browning’s aptitude has allowed him to be less involved.
“Baron, he’s an athletic kid. He’s a smart football player. He’s picked up on it very well,” Werner said. “I don’t have to communicate to them as much because I know that coach (Greg) Mattison’s a great coach and he’s going to get them in the right spot and the right position.”
Browning recorded career-highs with 43 tackles and five sacks in 2019.
In terms of sacks, Browning said he feels he will have more pass rush opportunities than he did last year.
But with the depth in the linebackers room, a rotation throughout the game may result in lost snaps for Browning and the other starters, but the Texas native is not concerned with this possibility.
“You’ve got to understand there are a lot of great other players on this team, so everybody’s got to get their time,” Browning said. “I feel like that’s what being a teammate is — you can’t hog it all. I don’t have a problem with that. I know the other guys don’t have a problem with that.”