Loaded: Ohio State Secondary Poised for Huge Year

By Kyle Rowland on March 13, 2013 at 10:00a
Bradley Roby is one of the nation's best cornerbacks

At this time last season, Ohio State’s secondary was viewed as a flawed unit on an otherwise solid defense. Praise was lobbed at the defensive line and linebackers. One year later, reveals a role reversal or sorts.  

There’s a reason for that. The veteran units from last season are now flush with young, unproven talent, while the cornerbacks and safeties are made up of experienced upperclassmen. The headliner of the group, junior cornerback Bradley Roby, is perhaps the best in America.

And that’s the goal for the entire unit: be the best in America. Their rallying cry is “BIA,” and after finishing the 2012 season with momentum, they understand their importance to the defense and the team.

“We want to be the best in America, and they’re working at that,” cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said last season. “They understand that they’re not. They understand they could be. I think they have the confidence that’s necessary to become that. I think that’s their strength.”

The same statement could be played on a loop during spring practice.

Three starters return – Roby and safeties Christian Bryant and CJ Barnett – and the newbie of the group, cornerback Doran Grant, is a junior who’s started in the past and been a regular in the rotation. The talent level of the quartet has their position coaches smiling with the potential for greatness evident.

Arguably the biggest news of Ohio State’s offseason was the return of Roby, a second-team All-American that blossomed into a game-changer. The dynamic shutdown corner begins the spring as a frontrunner for the Jim Thorpe Award and a vital part of a national championship contender.

“I think his best days are ahead of him,” Coombs said last November. “I think he’ll be a great player. But I think he needs more time and more seasoning. He still has things he wants to accomplish, and the least of these things is to be part of a team with a chance to win a national championship.”

Expectations are high for Roby, the secondary, the defense and the team. If ever there was a domino effect, Roby’s decision is it. This is a guy who scored three different ways last season – on an interception return, fumble and blocked punt.

“It just shows me that I’m on the right path. I'm following my plan,” said Roby, who actually committed to Vanderbilt as a wide receiver in high school. “This is all part of my plan I came to Ohio State with. Just the fact that (the NFL) is discussed is good for me, knowing I’m doing things I'm supposed to be doing.”

Bryant's agression is noted.Christian Bryant will hit you.

Ohio State’s pass defense, much like the defense as a whole, improved as the season went on. The Buckeyes allowed 32 pass plays of 20 yards or more and nearly 250 yards through the air per game. After 12 games, it ranked 76th, not the level Coombs, safeties coach Everett Withers, defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and head coach Urban Meyer were looking to establish.

But upon closer inspection, the numbers were rather inspiring. They surrendered 10.9 yards per completion and only 6.4 yards per attempt. In November, that number was a full yard less. Individually, Roby led the country in passes defended. And don’t forget, he only played 11 games.

Poor tackling plagued the team early in the season, as well as differing philosophies on coverages and communication breakdowns. Finally, the coaching staff opted to go man, with Roby and senior Travis Howard putting their signature on the defense, limiting passes more and more as the season progressed. The duo would earn All-Big Ten honors.

“Any time you have a guy on the opposite side of you making plays, it allows you to think, ‘I want to do the same thing,’” said Howard, the Big Ten’s leader in interceptions, about Roby protecting the other side of the field. “You don’t want one guy getting more plays than you. It makes it a challenge and a battle between us.”

The playmaking abilities of Bryant and Barnett added to the depth of the secondary. In Ohio State’s two biggest wins of the season – Wisconsin and Michigan – they were the ones that made game-clinching interceptions.

“We focused on the fundamentals - tackling better, leveraging the ball and keeping them in front of us,” Barnett said. “Coach Meyer really challenged us and put pressure on us to be better. We did a good job of answering the call.”

Bryant finished second to Ryan Shazier with 71 tackles and Barnett was fourth with 56 stops. Barnett led the Buckeyes in tackles during the ill-fated 2011 season.

With so much youth in front of them – virtually an entire new front seven – Roby, Bryant and Barnett have evolved into the defense’s leaders. The trio is entering their third year as starters. In only two days of spring practice, teammates and coaches have raved about the vocal presence of the three emotional players.

“Energy is contagious. Effort is contagious,” Fickell said. “I can honestly say that’s what I’m excited about. We have some guys in leadership positions with a lot of confidence and when they have confidence, it exudes confidence to others.”

“If we put together a good D-line and linebackers, I think we’ll have a good team. If not, we won’t. It’s pretty simple.”

Bryant and Barnett, both seniors, have the added spotlight on them. If Bryant can make another leap, like he did from 2011 to 2012, the Buckeyes will reap the rewards. Staying healthy has been Barnett’s main issue. When he’s on the field, Barnett has been effective, though he and Bryant are prone to missed tackles.

One of those who needs to gain self-assurance is Grant, who will replace Howard. Great things have been said about Grant since his freshman season. Last spring, he battled Howard for the starting spot, losing out in a highly competitive contest. Grant started one game and finished the season with 19 tackles, an interception and a sack.

A plethora of names, such as Cam Burrows, Devan Bogard, Adam Griffin, Pittsburgh Brown, Tyvis Powell, Armani Reeves, Najee Murray and Eli Apple will also pop up from time to time this season, whether they’re a part of the rotation in the secondary or making plays on special teams.

A stout starting lineup and equally impressive depth have made the secondary undoubtedly the strength of the defense. But Meyer is fully aware of where championships are born and where they die. 

“If we put together a good D-line and linebackers, I think we’ll have a good team,” he said. “If not, we won’t. It’s pretty simple.”

The opportunity of being the best in America awaits.


Comments Show All Comments

Grayskullsession's picture

Poor tackling plagued the team early in the season, as well as differing philosophies on coverages and communication breakdowns. Finally, the coaching staff opted to go man, with Roby and senior Travis Howard putting their signature on the defense, limiting passes more and more as the season progressed. The duo would earn All-Big Ten honors.

I wonder if Meyer still wants to implement the pattern-matching he is used to eventually. I like man coverage but you cant always rely on man coverage to get the job done against higher talent teams.

"if irony were made of strawberries, we' d all be drinking a lot of smoothies right now."

Buckeye06's picture

I somewhat disagree as Man is played a ton in the NFL.  Not saying there isn't a time to blanket certain guys more, but when you drop into soft zones, good qbs will find holes if you can't get pressure quick.
If we get pressure, no issues with zone coverage

buckeye76BHop's picture

This quote by Grayskull is exactly why I keep saying what I have about the current coaches (including Fickell who's the DC of the defense.  It took them till mid season to figure out to play man as opposed to zone...just saying, I don't think it would have taken that long if Heacock was on staff).  It's usually a trickle down effect in business and it's the same thing for coaching.
 I've coached with some great coaches and I've been with some sub par ones as well.  When those great coaches were taken out of the equation...it hurt everyone involved including the current players. This often seemed due to trying too hard (hence poor tackling) or aren't as motivated as they were before with the other coach(es) on staff (notice that last year with several players until Boren went to LB).  That's why I feel Heacock helping out could make a good defensive coaching staff possibly great.  I really hope he gets hired...  
The DBs will be studs....it's the front 7 I'm worried about...and it appears UFM is as well.  Just read his quote above which I've seen/heard several times before.

"There's nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you."

"I love football. I think it is most wonderful game in world and I despise to lose."

Woody Hayes 1913 - 1987 

Codeezy's picture

Football now please!

RunEddieRun1983's picture

I want to see Christian Bryant play with a better head on his shoulders.  He had some big plays, but also some really stupid penalties got called on him.  CJ Barnett is from my alma mater of Northmont, always been excited about his ability, if he can put it together the secondary will not be able to be contended with.

I don't always downvote, but I do always downvote a Michigan fan trolling the Buckeye boards.

LouGroza's picture

I may have missed Vonn Bells name in that story but he will contribute right away. He caught the attention of many in the all-star games as being above other players abilities. Very excited to see this backfield do great things with so many bullets to put in the gun. Nice write up Kyle.

Enzo's picture

Bryant could have led the team in tackles if he ever learned to wrap up.

gwalther's picture

Really pumped about Doran Grant.

Class of 2008

Baroclinicity's picture

I agree.  I thought he shined when he was in the game.  Now if we can just get Bryant and Barnett to wrap up instead of trying to bounce them into the 6th row.

When you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Buckeyejason's picture

I like that its a veteran, experienced group. Roby is the star obviously and Bryant looked great at times last year. They seem to have got torched alot last season so I hope there's big improvents.


trasch_man's picture

The secondary doesn't have a choice but to be the best in the conference and among the best in the country. If these 4 don't perform at the highest level, it will be a long year defensively. If they can live up to the hype, Roby and Co. should be able to take some pressure off the pass rush as well as Bryant and Barnett helping out on the run plus helping out the fresh faces at linebacker by supporting in coverage over the middle and in the flats. They need to perform or it could be a worse season, defensively, than last.

BuddhaBuck's picture

If Winfield doesn't sign with a team, can he please come coach tackling and run-support?

Don't text while driving.

GV9's picture

Winfield. Best. Tackler. Ever.  

Hovenaut's picture

+1....11 brought the wood.

Btw......believe the pic above is from the '96 Panther slaughter.

72-0, tOSU. Hi Mark May.

faux_maestro's picture

'96 was at home and we are in our road whites. Must be '95?

Your mom told me she wants a Dicken Cidar.

shadybuck's picture

When he said the rallying cry was "BIA", did anyone else flash back to that old little john song BIA BIA ft. ludacris and short dawg?
I mean that could be a good swagger/trash talk rallying cry right?

BuddhaBuck's picture

"Bia bia, why you actin' like a". *bass drop*

Don't text while driving.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Roby, Bryant and Barnett have evolved into the defense’s leaders.

Great to hear. These three players can serve as the three-headed "quarterback" of the defense, with maybe Barnett being the main leader (he's basically the strong safety).
At the same time, a couple of leaders must develop in the trenches who will partly lead by example.
The new LBs in the rotation will look to Shazier for leadership.
Who will take on a leadership role on the DL?

buckeye4life050233's picture

It was interesting last year that no one seemed to step up in place of Orhian Johnson who seemed to play hobbled and hurt all year and consistently got beat on longer developing routes when the dline wasn't getting pressure......was it depth? or was no other person on the roster able to play better than a 70% or 80% Orhian Johnson???

gwalther's picture

100% Orhian Johnson also somehow wasn't any better than 70%-80% Orhian Johnson...but I agree, hard to imagine other players weren't better (cf. Doran Grant).
My thought is, they liked OJ's measurables and he was a senior, so they stuck with him. I'm glad he's gone.

Class of 2008

Squirrel Master's picture

Uh, excuse me but you are way off. Johnson didn't start at the beginning of the season at STAR. Sabino started and got hurt. When that happened, they were searching for a good STAR to play more because the lb were not filling the loss of Sabino. Johnson played great and could easily point out that he was the only decent tackler of all the safeties. He also was very important in run defense.

I think you guys mistaken his play during his junior year vs last year. Last year he saved the defense many times when others made mistakes. In fact, during the second half of the season he made more plays than most of the other secondary outside of Roby. Howard got his INTs early and did nothing late in the season. Bryant and Barnett missed a ton of tackles. OJ was a heck of a lot better than Pitts Brown was.

I saw a UFO once.......it told me to have a goodyear!

Citrus's picture

The front 7 is green but has the athleticism to pressure the QB. I look for the talented rich pool of  DBs to have quite a few ints as a result.

 I have a feeling that early we will yell "WOW!" & "D'oh!" at this D. By the midway through the season they should be pretty good.

cal3713's picture

The most beautiful thing about college football is getting to watch teams learn more about how to play each week.  No other sport showcases the learning (both in strategy and technique) more...

Hovenaut's picture

Eager to see the group make the difference....be it run support, blitzes, shutdown coverage behind the rush and turnovers.

And what a group for the freshman talent to apprentice under.

2002osubuck's picture

I think that vonn bell is too good and capable that the coaches will have to find a way to get him on the field. From the highlights I saw, he looks unbelievable if nothing else have him returning punts or kickoffs.

Buckeyejason's picture

if nothing else have him returning punts or kickoffs.

No thank you! There's wayyyy better candidates then Bell for returns. Brown, Hall, Marshall, Wilson, Reeves..just to name a few.


MediBuck's picture

I love this situation with the DBs. We have the best corner in the nation in Roby, solid leaders and hard hitters with Bryant and Barnett, and Grant is more or less a starter given his experience and level of production on the field when he filled in. Now, with the youth of the front seven, we're probably gonna be in base 4-2-5 next season, and that opens up another spot for the STAR, and between Tyvis Powell and some of the incoming big names (I'm looking at you, Vonn Bell) there could be some major athleticism at the position (which would be huge for run support).
If there were ever a year OSU needed to be deep at DB, this is it.

"There is a force that makes us all brothers, no one goes his way alone." --Woody Hayes

bishop072's picture

While I'm not ready to lose hope, I can't not hear this part of the article on infinite repeat "though (Barnett) and Bryant are prone to miss tackles" over my memories of all  the missed tackles by them all season long last year.
just hope the fundamentals get corrected, cuz last season was an embarrassment 

CentralFloridaBuckeye's picture

Urban has brought in a lot of talent on the defensive front.  The Bucks will be solid up front.  Just need some linebackers to step up to play with Shazier.  Got to hope that Grant can finally put it all together.  Would love to see Mitchell get some playing time too in crunch time.  With a solid front seven the seconday has a shot at being one of the best in the land.  Go Bucks!