I have been fortunate to attend several Ohio State practices this spring, including this past Saturday. What follows are my defensive observations, both in terms of scheme and personnel.
The same questions remain that plagued the Buckeye defense last year, namely who will be the starting Mike linebacker next to Ryan Shazier, and who will be the Star or nickel defender.
First a bit of background. I have only observed the Buckeyes practice this spring in their 4-2-5 nickel defense. This primarily takes the form of an under front but it can also be an over.
In either case, the defensive front shades to the field, while the defensive backs align to the receiver strength.
The Buckeyes will also employ a 30-odd front with their nickel personnel in more obvious passing downs.
OSU's philosophy of practicing primarily nickel in practice makes sense. Practice time is limited and he Buckeyes play their nickel whenever an offense inserts 11 (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) or 10 (4 WR, 1 RB) personnel.
This means that not only do the Buckeyes play exclusively nickel against spread teams but will also play extensive nickel against a pro-style team. Ohio State will thus be in nickel personnel upwards of 80% of the snaps on defense this year. It only makes sense to spend a majority of your practice time with this grouping.
Contrast this with last preseason. There, Ohio State practiced almost exclusively in a 4-3 under but played primarily nickel when the season began. This in all likelihood contributed to the Buckeyes' slow defensive start.
New Song, Same Verse
In any event, the overwhelming use of the nickel scheme leads to two personnel conclusions. The first is that Ohio State really only needs to identify another inside linebacker to play alongside Shazier. As can be seen in the top screenshot, the Buckeyes effectively play two inside linebackers, a Mike (who plays to the strength) and the Will (who aligns to the weakside). This is the reason that Josh Perry — who played Sam linebacker last season — is repping at the Mike position.
Curtis Grant has received the first-team Mike reps throughout the spring. Although Meyer annointed Grant the starter, I think it is fair to say that the jury is still out, however. To me, Grant has still not jumped off the screen in terms of making plays. My bet would be on Perry to be the second nickel linebacker. Perry looks the part, and has demonstrated a nose for the football. The position remains very much open, however, providing an opportunity for Cam Williams as well as Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson. But Grant is certainly going to receive every opportunity to play.
The second point is while the Buckeyes really only need to find one additional linebacker, it is crucial they find someone to man the Star nickel position. For the Ohio State defense, the Star often provides wide-side force support. That means he must both be able to defend wide receiver screens as well as take on lead blockers in the run game. To illustrate what I mean by force, see how Orhian Johnson correctly maintains outside leverage, allowing CJ Barnett to come inside-out with 'lever' support and make the play.
The Star position was never solidified last year. The Buckeyes auditioned different players, eventually settling on Johnson, who was never a natural fit.
Questions remain regarding the position this year. Tyvis Powell has received the majority of first-team reps. Powell has done a nice job and shown some physicality. The competition will likely continue into the fall, however. One person to watch is Devan Bogard, who is still sidelined with a knee injury. Bogard has the tools and body type for the position. I was also impressed during one spring practice that, while unable to practice, Bogard continually asked Kerry Coombs for the coverage calls.
The rest of the defensive backfield is largely set. Bradley Roby sat out much of group and team practice, as he has little to prove. But in the limited action I have observed, Roby certainly looks the part of a preseason All-American.
Doran Grant also has looked strong at the wide-side corner. Grant played well last year when given the opportunity and has picked up where he left off. He is a physical corner who also does a nice job making plays on the football. Grant is well ahead of the younger corners and I would be very surprised if he is not starting this fall. The competition amongst Amani Reeves, Eli Apple, and Cam Burrows is who can become the third corner that is able to step in should an injury arise — and step in for Roby in 2014.
OSU is also locked in at safety with C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant. Though they were solid throughout 2012, the duo played far better in the second half of last season. This was a combination of Bryant settling in to a free safety role and Barnett returning to full health from an ankle injury. Bryant became very effective making plays in the middle of the field.
Barnett and Bryant also benefited from altered responsibilities without OSU's defensive scheme. As I alluded to earlier, the Buckeyes altered who was responsible for force support. As demonstrated above, they went back to the nickel providing contain, with Barnett then filling from the inside-out. Barnett was then bringing a more physical presence in run support.
This change also allowed Ohio State to be more varied in their coverage. They continued to play cover 4 in run downs, but also utilized cover 1 and quarter-quarter-half. Both coverage schemes allowed for secondary run support from the outside-in, featuring Barnett in the former and Roby with the latter.
The experienced secondary allows the Buckeyes to mix and match coverages. Ohio State is taking advantage of the opportunity this spring, providing the offense multiple looks. Look for the Buckeyes to utilize the same basic framework this year. In particular, expect to see OSU play ample amounts of quarter-quarter-half this fall. This places Roby as the cover-2 corner to the boundary, where he can provide boundary run support (away from the defense that is shaded to the field) and take away any underneath throws.
One interesting subplot to watch this fall is whether heralded recruit Vonn Bell will be able to earn playing time. The most obvious place is at the open Star position. It is unclear, however, whether Bell's skill set fits the position. Bell's strength seems to be as more of a ball hawk free safety. Perhaps if Bell is too talented to keep off the field, Ohio State can move Bryant down to Star in nickel situations, where he would also excel. The Buckeye coaching staff has heretofore not shown an interest in moving Bryant from free safety and making him rep at two positions, however. And Bryant has been critical to the Buckeye defense in the middle of the field.
We Are Young
Across the defensive line, Ohio State will be counting on sophomores that were once-heralded recruits. Even though the Buckeyes are replacing all four starters, OSU's starters up front seem largely set. They are: Adolphus Washington (5 technique); Joel Hale/Tommy Schutt (NG or 1 technique); Michael Bennett (3 technique); and Noah Spence (Leo aka 'Viper').
Spence has been nearly unblockable this spring. Spence played saw snaps on 237 plays last year, leading all returning defensive linemen and had flashes. Spence showed a quick first step but was often a step away from a sack. That was largely a result of trying to rely upon his speed rather than using technique that allowed him to go through the outer half of the offensive tackle's shoulder. Spence did noticeably improve last year holding the point of attack against the run.
But if spring is any indication, Spence has taken immense steps forward. He's has been a handful, even for Jack Mewhort. In particular, he has improved his pass-rushing technique, allowing him to regularly get to the quarterback.
Bennett has also had an excellent spring. He slid back inside to his most natural 3-technique position. From there he can use his first-step quickness without having to worry about his foot speed on the edge. Bennett has big shoes to fill in Johnathan Hankins', but he is a different player. He does not have Hankins' mass at the point of attack, but is quicker and more of a threat to penetrate, particularly against the pass.
Hale and Schutt were set to split reps early in the spring, but Schutt has largely been held out with an injury. Hale brings experience to the group, and OSU needs him to be a plugger. Schutt has more all-around talent. I expect Schutt to gain the majority of reps, but both to play extensively.
Washington has also received praise from Meyer regarding his spring performance. Washington is perhaps the ideal body type for a strong-side defensive end. He demonstrated last year that he is too effective of a pass rusher to move inside.
When Ohio State goes to its odd front nickel look, Bennett slides inside to nose guard, with Washington and Spence at end. The key for Washington is intrinsic. He must play with a motor and not take plays off.
One issue with such a young group is that OSU may not have the depth to regularly rotate on the defensive line, Hale and Schutt excluded. Steve Miller will likely gain reps at Leo, but it is unclear who will spell Washington. That provides a big opportunity this fall for freshmen such as Joey Bosa, who is also well suited for 5-technique.
Pulling it Together?
The Buckeye defense is obviously a far less experienced unit than the offense. The question becomes whether OSU will have the same growing pains as it did last fall. Two facts may mitigate against that. The first is that Ohio State has a cohesion in its schemes that was not present last year. The defensive staff went through early growing pains attempting to figure out what they wanted to do. This was particularly noticeable in a shuffling between coverage schemes and how much pressure to apply as a defensive unit. The uncertainty led to wasted practice time and players playing slow.
That uncertainty is no longer present. Instead, as noted, the defense is picking up where they left off last fall. That leads to increased reps and player confidence.
Ohio State's other positive factor is their experienced secondary. Much of the early problems last fall were a result of secondary breakdowns that led to 'explosive' plays. That should not be a problem this fall, as the Buckeyes have an experienced, cohesive unit that should help protect their younger counterparts up front. And Roby should be one of the best defensive players in the county this year, providing the Buckeyes with top-end talent at a crucial position. If the Buckeye secondary is able to provide this cover, then the Buckeyes' very talented front four should have time to settle in.
But the Buckeyes must still fill the Mike and Star positions. This was an unresolved problem last season that was merely papered over by Zach Boren. The Buckeyes need two players to grab these spots in the middle of its defense if that defense is to become a top-level unit.
Next week I will return with my offensive thoughts, as well as any additional defensive observations from the spring game.