The Dawn of the Defensive Backs

By Kyle Rowland on June 11, 2013 at 9:30a
The architect of Ohio State's nickel and dime defenses.

When the spread offense arrived to college football some 10 years ago, it was viewed by many as a gimmick and a fad that would soon wear out. Here we are in 2013 and variations of the spread offense can be seen in nearly every game of the season, including the national championship.

In the beginning, teams that needed an edge against bigger, faster and stronger opponents would utilize the spread as a way to gain an advantage. Urban Meyer was a huge proponent of the system, using it at Bowling Green and Utah and reaping the rewards. When Florida hired him, few believed the Gators could win in the SEC with an offense thought of as a fraud. But Meyer proved them wrong in resounding fashion.

Now Meyer and others must find the most effective way to defend the monster they created. During much of the 2012 season, Ohio State struggled against talented, athletic offenses. The Silver Bullets did improve as the year progressed, though, fielding the second-best defense in the nation for the month of November.

In the season-finale against Michigan, the Wolverines utilized Denard Robinson’s skill set, which contributed to 21 first-half points and 240 yards. Aided by questionable play calls, the Buckeyes didn’t allow Michigan to cross midfield in the second half and only yielded 39 yards.

They’ll have to perform at that level for 14 games in 2013 if a national title is the ultimate goal. But a schedule that features several up-tempo offenses could give the Buckeyes trouble. In the first seven games a year ago, Ohio State surrendered more than 400 yards per game. The common denominator for six of those opponents was a wide-open offensive attack. Each game resulted in a ‘W,’ but relying on your offense to outscore people, no matter how explosive, is not ideal.

Ohio State’s plan to combat this issue is to play with an extra defensive back. Nickel and dime sets will become the norm this fall. The Buckeyes have the experience and personnel, so cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs doesn’t see where the problem lies.

“We've got a lot of kids who are fast and they’re playing fast, and that’s exciting,” he said. “We've got to use speed to our advantage. We've got to take advantage of the strengths of our players.

“I think the benefit is the more fast guys you can put on the field against spread offensive teams, particularly in passing situations, the greater the chance you have to play multiple coverages. You can play more man-to-man and you can rush the passer more effectively. If it’s third-and-9 and you don’t anticipate they’re going to run the two-back run game at you, you can get some fast guys out there who can cover.”

"We've got a lot of kids who are fast and they’re playing fast, and that’s exciting. We've got to use speed to our advantage."

It’s the job of the defense to make sure they aren’t stretched and facing mismatches against an athletic offense. That task wasn’t so easy last season, when Ohio State allowed Cal (28), Nebraska (38) and Indiana (49) to score a combined 115 points. It’s no coincidence that Cal and Northwestern – spread offense teams – often come up in the toughest game of the season discussion.

Everett Withers has a reputation for building quality defenses, having done so for almost 30 years. As co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach for the Buckeyes, Withers realized early on that using a base defense stocked with smashmouth linebackers wouldn't get you too far in today’s version of college football. In an era of formations featuring three and four wide receivers, it isn’t practical to play a base defense even three-fourths of the game.

That was part of the hang up in 2012. The Jim Heacock/Luke Fickell defenses didn’t veer far from the traditional 4-3 alignment. That continued into last season, but this spring saw sweeping changes. Some formations included as many as six defensive backs.

“We’re talented in the back end,” said senior safety CJ Barnett. “We’re talented everywhere, but the mindset is that (Coach Withers) wants to get as many defensive backs on the field as he can. As long as we’re able to prove to him that we can play and we can be out there, why not have six or seven defensive backs out there?”

The star, a hybrid linebacker, will function as an extra strongside linebacker in the base defense, while the sixth defensive back will be similar to a weakside linebacker. It will allow the Buckeyes to pressure quarterbacks from various angles and disguise blitzes.

The more athletes Ohio State has on the field, the better equipped they are to slow down an opponent’s playmakers. Time and personnel also contributed to the installation of defensive back-heavy packages.

There’s a finite amount of time for players and coaches to interact during the offseason. The first year with a new staff isn’t conducive to a dramatic overhaul, so this spring became the period for implementation.

“There’s no doubt we thought we could use a little bit more of the nickel and dime packages that we started to use a little bit later in the year,” Withers said. “I think we thought if we could have had those available to us early on, we would have been a little bit more flexible in what we could have done.”

The loss of six starters along the front seven means the secondary is the most experienced spot on the entire team. The depth chart features five upperclassmen, including three seniors. Supply meets demand.

Adolphus Washington, Noah Spence and Co. helped change the perception of the defensive line with a robust spring. But it doesn’t change the experience factor. A majority of the guys are still underclassmen with limited playing time. Behind them are Barnett, Bradley Roby, Christian Bryant, Doran Grant and Pittsburgh Brown.

“I think it gives us some flexibility and more ability to blitz and do some things,” Withers said. “It obviously gives us some availability to cover in some more man-to-man situations. I just think it gives us some more flexibility to match up with some of the more spread-type offenses.”

There’s also a youth movement taking place with Tyvis Powell, Adam Griffin, Najee Murray and Devan Bogard providing stability and depth. That doesn’t include three freshman – Vonn Bell, Chris Worley and Jayme Thompson – who could make an immediate impact. 

“We recruited for those spots, and I think we can use the athleticism out there,” Withers said. “You don’t want to be trying to install those packages during the fall, you want to have those things already in place.”

For Ohio State, it’s about assembling the top talent on defense and letting the knowledge take hold. 

Said Fickell: “We’re going to play the best 11 guys.”


Comments Show All Comments

Firmthyfriendship's picture

"In the beginning, teams that needed an edge against bigger, faster and stronger opponents would utilize the spread as a way to gain an advantage."

I always thought this too, but then I thought, well what if you have the bigger faster players AND do this...then what? I guess we have seen the results!
I think we are good on the edge and I am confident in our secondary. Are you concerned about our interior on defense at all? I think to win it all we are going to need to be strong on the interior to stop the short/mid runs or the Play Action may be our downfall. That is what Alabama seems to be very good at. Play sound defense, control the tempo, run the ball, pass when appropriate. Oh, and assemble the most talented team possible.

hetuck's picture

Granted, this is based on potential, but I think this year's front four is better than last year's. And that's saying a lot considering you are replacing a 2nd and third round NFL pick. But remember Williams was coming off microfracture surgery and Simon gutted through injuries all season. If Spence, Washington, Bennett, and Schutt/Hale stay healthy, they could dominate. It may not translate into sacks due to three-step drops, but get your hands up & cause deflections/interceptions.  

Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.

Vince Lombardi

OldColumbusTown's picture

I'm still a bit skeptical on the defensive side and interested to see how this team performs early on in the year against the spread offenses of Cal, Northwestern, etc.
Kyle alluded to it, but the resurgence in the defensive efficiency last season did not occur until OSU played a run of pro-style attacks.  Illinois doesn't count because they were terrible, but even in the first half against Michigan, the defense again had trouble containing the spread running game.
I'm hopeful the answer to the equation lies in the increased number of DB's on the field, but at the same time, it all comes down to tackling.  OSU had LB's and also DB's out of position many times last season against spread running attacks, so hopefully with an overall increase in speed on the defensive side (with more DB's), the defense will be in better position.  That is step one.  Step two is wrap up and gang-tackle.

Buckeye06's picture

I would like to hope that having the additional DBs on the field would mean they won't get lost in coverage as often as a LBer would.  Not saying it's a sure thing of course, but DBs know how to play the pass, or should.
If you play the route somewhat well, the huge plays should be held to a minimum.  Broken plays will happen, but as you said, gang tackling after getting there should help.  Having the faster guys out there also should mean guys get there faster to help on those gang tackles

whobdis's picture

I agree completely..much was made of Boren's move and it's certainly commendable. But we did play some different teams down the stretch. I think part of it was Urban getting involved with the Defense as well. He stated a few times it was something he would need to do. You could see his frustration at times and he became vocal with some of the D coaches during games. Frankly..I think Luke still has some questions. From what I understand Withers got more involved and Luke was rather slow to move away from the base D. Hopefully it's just a learning phase.

MassiveAttack's picture

Do whatever you want with personnel, just be able to stop the run and short pass/screens.

The Ohio State University - "Haters love us!"

Doc's picture

I still have no faith in Fickell.  I know it is unfair, but he gives off no confidence.  I think all he knows is Heacock/Tressel defense and is not knowledgeable on other defensive schemes.  Wither's, on the other hand, makes me sleep better at night.

CJDPHoS Member

The Official DDS of 11W

OSUs12-OH's picture

In the season-finale against Michigan, the Wolverines utilized Denard Robinson’s skill set, which contributed to 21 first-half points and 240 yards.


It will be interesting to see how the defense's ran this year and how it goes.  I know this, things better not look like this above or the Brendan Bigelow run.  We'll see how they play in the first four games...that will be the only way we know for sure.  That run Bigelow had was a total fundamental break down of tackling and pursuit (from Nate Williams who had him in the backfield to horrible tackling by LBs and DBs).  Not to mention if these guys above were coached right they would have had one hit high and one low (just imagine if that happened. Also imagine if Denard didn't get hurt...we would have lost).  Please don't give me that heat of the moment BS.  No was all bad as far as these two for instances.  Also it's not acceptable OSU defense (PERIOD).

"I want a hungry team. I want a team that can't wait to get out there. I want an angry team! You're the Ohio State Buckeyes. You're an angry football team. You're a hungry football team and I'm proud to be your coach." UFM

steensn's picture

Who goes high and who goes low?

chirobuck's picture

I know its Bryant that went high coming from the inside and NOT WRAPPING!!!!!! I swear to god if he starts doing the whole "put my head down, throw my shoulder into you with no wrapping up crap" again this year I'm going to throw my beer through the TV.......nothing is more frustrating than watching him bounce off of and completely whiff on ball carriers


^ best post ever ^

SMP's picture

I am not a fan of the co-defensive coordinator titles we currently have.  Withers and Fickell seem to come from two different approaches to defense.  I think one has a more aggressive approach and the other read/attack.  I absolutely hate the three man rush, bend but don't break and soft zone pass coverage.  I hope we see changes, which includes better tackling.

steensn's picture

I think Fickell is being groomed.

Doc's picture

For what?  The dude is making 600 large, he needs to be more affective than he is.

CJDPHoS Member

The Official DDS of 11W

nickma71's picture

Last I checked, the team that had dominated almost all competition runs right at you and punches you in the mouth.

steensn's picture

Not anymore, you can still do that a bit, Alabama still does, but they also opened up their offense a bit more as well. They are "smash mouth" compared to todays game, but no compared to years past. Just look at the NFL in 1930 and compare it to today. That is the definition of smash mouth football, not the 1980's stuff.
Adoption of some of the NFL rules on pass int and defenseless receivers have given the offense a huge advantage in the passing game. Alabama can get away with it a bit more because of the level of talent they have. They don't need to get fancy, because their players are just better and don't need a style that gives them a favorable mismatch with risk. They can control the game... most other schools need it to create an unfair advantage, with some additional risk (particular on D which might spend a bit more time on he field because of it).
It got Utah to a BCS, it got Florida back into the race and two BCS titles.