COLUMBUS — After he injured his knee in Ohio State’s season opener last year, linebacker Dante Booker was a man in limbo.
Week after week, coach Urban Meyer would tell reporters that Booker may be close to returning to the field. Week after week, Booker would sit out, watching his replacement, Jerome Baker, become a star in a defense laden with stars. In the end, the season was a wash, and Booker took a medical redshirt.
“I felt like I was robbed a little bit,” he acknowledged.
Booker is healthy now, and has earned a starting outside linebacker spot, joining Baker — who came out of nowhere to finish second on the team in tackles (83) and tackles for a loss (9.5) — who will man the other side.
To Booker, who played in nearly every game in his first two years before earning the starting nod in last year’s preseason camp, 2017 seems like a fresh start. He still considers himself a brand-new starter.
“I feel like I’m more passionate because I don’t have as many swings left,” he said. “It’s kind of reignited this fire a little bit inside of me.”
New linebackers coach Bill Davis said Booker doesn’t need any extra motivation.
“With Dante I don’t think there’s any such word as extra,” said Davis, an NFL assistant for 24 NFL seasons. “He is so driven. He wants it to bad. As long as I’ve known him, he’s that driven. He is full-throttle and wants it as bad as anyone I’ve been around.”
Coach Urban Meyer sees it, too.
“He’s doing great,” Meyer said. “He’s one of my favorite players. He’s just a good guy who works his tail off. It’s not been easy for him.”
Booker’s resurgence is timely because there was a huge hole to fill in the Buckeyes’ linebacker corps. Raekwon McMillan, the leading tackler and leader of last year’s defense, left a year early for the NFL. That’s 221 tackles in the past two seasons that now have to be accounted for.
Last year’s strongside backer and fifth-year senior Chris Worley has moved over to the middle to replace McMillan, leaving Baker and Booker on the outsides.
Baker was a present surprise last year, introducing himself to the nation when he grabbed an interception and ran it back 68 yards for a touchdown to give the Buckeyes a 14-0 lead at Oklahoma in their third game of the season. He also had a critical interception against Michigan late in the third quarter with Ohio State down by 10. He admits, though, that he lined up wrong about half the time and compensated for it with his speed.
“His football IQ is high to begin with, and I think it’s growing,” Davis said of Baker, who along with Worley has been named to the preseason watch list for the Butkus Award. “When you take a fast player who is twitched up like he is, and he sees things clearly and knows he knows, now you actually increase his speed. So Jerome is getting faster and faster.”
Davis said he also has confidence in the backups, who include Malik Harrison, Keandre Jones, Tuf Borland and true freshman Baron Browning.
Davis, who was hired when Luke Fickell took the head coaching job at Cincinnati, has brought an NFL mindset to the linebackers room, instructing the players on how to be “a next-level pro,” Worley said.
“Bill Davis, he’s more like, ‘I’m going to tell you what to do, and get it done,’” Worley said. “He definitely has that NFL feel to him.”