Secondary Issues, Primary Concern: The Defensive Backs in 2014

By Vico on January 23, 2014 at 11:30a
45 Comments
Armani Reeves, Cam Burrows, Vonn Bell, Joey Bosa

Continuing a theme I started two weeks ago, Urban Meyer's tenure at Ohio State could be best characterized by missed opportunities. The missed opportunity in 2012 was clearly the sanctions that led, in part, to the arrival of Urban Meyer. Absent that postseason ban, I do not doubt Ohio State rolls Nebraska again in the Big Ten Championship Game and beats Notre Dame in lieu of Alabama. College football fans can contest this scenario as I envision it, but, alas, we'll never know.

The missed opportunity in 2013 on a team loaded with veteran offensive talent was clearly the defense, whose collective absence of respectability gave every opportunity for college football pundits to discuss substituting a one-loss SEC team (Alabama, Auburn, or Missouri) in place of an undefeated Ohio State squad.

Michigan State did college football writ large a favor by exposing Ohio State's fundamentally poor defense for good in the Big Ten Championship Game. Sammy Watkins and Chad Morris poured salt on that wound for Ohio State fans in the Orange Bowl a few weeks later.

Ohio State's 2014 season will start with far more questions than even the 2012 campaign, Meyer's first in Columbus after a 6-7 Ohio State season. Perhaps the biggest question concerns the secondary. While attrition at offensive line may be greater, that particular unit had much greater production and reason for confidence despite the attrition.

The questions at the secondary even led to a reshuffling of the coaching staff. While Chris Ash is yet to be formally announced, the title he has bestowed upon himself in his Twitter bio suggests he may take responsibility for the entire defensive backfield. This would possibly move Kerry Coombs, beloved fire-breathing mascot of the program for Ohio State fans, to special teams coach and recruiting coordinator.

This feature will take a look at the problem of attrition in the secondary for 2014, discussing as well the likely replacements for the departing seniors and Bradley Roby.

The consensus among Ohio State fans may be that the safety play was the bigger source of frustration, though that it is a matter of debate underscores how far-reaching are grievances are with the play of the defensive backfield. Down the stretch, I found the play of the cornerbacks even more concerning. Bradley Roby was lost to injury after the Big Ten Championship Game, leaving a guy like Doran Grant the top cornerback on the squad. His inability to turn around his head and look for the ball in the air was the source of multiple pass interference flags in the Big Ten Championship Game and Orange Bowl. Even when coverage was adequate, these freshman-level errors manifested among the cornerbacks.

Confidence in the ability of the returning cornerbacks was not demonstrated through the 2013 season now that Roby is a professional. The projected starters, at least right now, are Armani Reeves and Doran Grant. Neither looked the part in 2013. Grant will be a senior in 2014, though was prone to those aforementioned freshman-level errors. Reeves, a junior in 2014, did not look much better either. Him interfering with Martavis Bryant en route to what was another highlight reel play for Clemson in the Orange Bowl still resonates.

New secondary coach Chris Ash is going to pick one of two poisons in evaluating the two-deep at cornerback for the start of the 2014 season. The returning players from last year's active roster are upperclassmen with game experience but without much confidence. The redshirts from last season, Eli Apple and Gareon Conley, have no game experience, but plenty of intriguing "upside". Further, both are distinct from Grant and Reeves in another measurable property. Whereas Grant and Reeves measure around 5-10 each, Apple and Conley are listed at 6-1 and 6-2 respectively. Both would physically match up better with the move toward taller and bigger wide receivers than Grant or Reeves.

I'm especially optimistic about Eli Apple, who, from reports I gathered, may have looked the part better than the other freshman defensive backs during fall camp last year. For one reason or the other, the coaching staff felt comfortable redshirting him in 2013 and preserving his eligibility for 2014. Apple should still be as promising in run support as a cornerback as he was when he started his collegiate career. His wingspan and ability to ride receivers should still be there, even if I'm still not sure about the quality of his backpedal. All told, I think Apple makes a very strong push for playing time, even possibly starting, as a redshirt freshman.

Conley is still a bit of an unknown, but his size is still ideal for the cornerback position. A wide receiver for most of his high school career, there is still a lot we don't know about Conley as a defensive back.

Though it could be too early to call shots for this position, especially with the major reshuffling in the coaching staff for the defensive backfield, but I think Doran Grant holds his starting spot to start 2014. I think Eli Apple may supplant Armani Reeves, though.

The conversation about cornerback depth has, to this point, omitted freshmen-to-be who have not officially signed letters of intent and Cameron Burrows. A guy like Damon Webb, who I am surprised did not receive that elusive "fifth star" from recruiting services, could very well factor into the cornerback picture. Cameron Burrows provided emergency duty down the stretch at cornerback, especially in the game against Indiana. However, I expect Burrows to transition to safety soon, possibly starting this season.

Ohio State loses just about all safeties from last season. With the exception of Christian Bryant, that may be a good thing to just start anew. Bryant was denied a redshirt for the 2013 season after being injured at the end of the Wisconsin game. C.J. Barnett and Corey "Pitt" Brown exhausted their eligibility as redshirt seniors. Much like the situation at cornerback, a youth movement to replace these seniors is inevitable.

The two returning faces are two sophomores-to-be in 2014. The first is fan favorite Tyvis Powell, who endeared himself to fans the moment he committed to Ohio State and acquitted himself fairly well as a redshirt freshman in 2013. The game-sealing interception against Michigan is a great way for an unknown commodity from Bedford to seal his status among Ohio State fans.

Vonn Bell at Ohio State's Media Day in 2013We hope Vonn Bell is one of many answers in 2014.

The second is Vonn Bell, the highly touted prize of the 2013 recruiting class who committed to Ohio State on National Letter of Intent Day over the favored Tennessee Volunteers. Bell, the subject of this post-Orange Bowl feature on Eleven Warriors, got increasingly more playing time as the season progressed. He started on special teams before moving to a starting role for the Orange Bowl after Corey "Pitt" Brown demonstrated an incapability in his position during the Big Ten Championship Game.

Bell did well enough, given the circumstances and the overall play of his teammates in the defensive backfield. He got burned on one Sammy Watkins touchdown, in which he was given no help in the form of a linebacker redirect. In another, he goaded Tajh Boyd to become Freshman Tajh Boyd, killing what would have been a scoring drive with a one-armed interception. The future is indeed bright.

I think the same holds for Tyvis Powell, who I genuinely like. One possible reservation about Powell concerns how high his "ceiling" is. Powell has ideal size for his position. I'm unsure of overall athleticism or speed. Nonetheless, Powell more than compensates by being a coach's favorite. His buy-in and work ethic have gone unquestioned. It's how a meager prospect from Bedford, a relative backwater for football recruiting in the state, could go from a redshirt year with a coaching staff who knew nothing of him and may not have recruited him to a regular fixture the next year. I don't think Powell's trajectory is exponential, but continued improvement and maturity at the position should see Powell again as a starter.

This leaves open the question of a third defensive back for Ohio State's nickel formations, an increasingly common alignment against the bevy of spread offenses that Ohio State faces in the league. Given his size and speed, the aforementioned Cam Burrows becomes a possibility.

Whether it's Burrows or another player, new assistant coach Chris Ash is going to have a rookie at nickelback. Jayme Thompson and Chris Worley are options from last year's recruiting class. Both redshirted and are unknown commodities at this point. Thompson is rehabilitating an injury and Worley is a "tweener" at linebacker, though I am expecting he stays at the "star" position.

Further, Ohio State is giving itself numerous options in this year's recruiting class. Most of the defensive backs pledged to sign with Ohio State project as safeties and not cornerbacks. However, freshmen are still freshmen. We also will not know a lot about guys like Erick Smith until they're on campus.

The prospectus for Ohio State's defensive backfield in 2014 looks objectively bleak. This is mostly a function of the poor performance of the unit in 2013 and the attrition that followed among the personnel and coaching staff. Whatever the case, and whoever gets inserted by Chris Ash to the field this season, it has to improve considerably. The defense can not rely on the offense hit harder overall by attrition for bail in 2014. If anything, it may be asked to provide cover itself if and when pass protection falters and Ohio State struggles to gain yards on the ground.

45 Comments

Comments

fanfarris's picture

Why is it taking so long to officialy sign Ash???

you
 

dwcbuckeye's picture

I am cautiously optimistic we will have a return to silver bullet type defense starting next year; at least the trajectory will have been changed for the better.  The players you mention are indeed inexperienced as a whole, yet are tremendous athletes.  Granted there is an occasional bust here and there with individual recruits, but that should not be an excuse go-forward with the sheer quantity of play-makers.  It is now up to the coaching staff to objectively play the best players not just for the game at hand, but for the season as a whole.

Hovenaut's picture

I think we'll see some growing pains from this unit in 2014, but I also think we'll see some change for the better.

"Success...it's what you do with what you got" - Woody Hayes

Buckeye06's picture

Don't we have 2 corners in Lattimore and Webb and only one safety in Smith?
Am i wrong?

JDunc686's picture

I think Malik Hooker is going to play Safety

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Somebody had those exact same words below!

Oyster's picture

I hope nobody takes this any further and tries to divide by zero.
Edit:  I appreciated your post Fido.  Very clever in my book.

JDunc686's picture

I think Malik Hooker is going to play Safety

Oyster's picture

Somebody had those exact same words above! 

W-burgbuck's picture

I hope nobody takes this any further and tries to divide by zero!

W-burgbuck

Furious George 27's picture

If Ash is the sole secondary coach, he has no reason to favor anyone over the other.... So despite Grant returning I wouldn't say he is a lock especially with the talent that has been collected the last few classes.

Yeah, well…that’s just like, your opinion, man.

BAR43's picture

Grant is a lock unless he digresses significantly. Grant had a very good year last season and has experience. I am very excited about the talent we have coming in, but I don't see anyone taking Grant's spot. In my mind Grant is rather underrated.

Furious George 27's picture

If Grant fails to learn how to turn his head and the scheme changes... He could easily be beaten out. Lets also not assume that the players who red-shirted did not get any better either... He could be passed over by just not improving as well.

Yeah, well…that’s just like, your opinion, man.

BAR43's picture

I understand what you are saying. My issue is people short changing Grant. He was a very good CB last year and CB is a very difficult position for younger guys to jump in and play. So yes, if Grant gets worse or does not progress a young player might jump him. That is very unlikely in my eyes.

Jdadams01's picture

Grant had a very good season overall. Better than all but a handful of corners in the Big Ten. For some reason, though, a lot of posters are taking a few plays where he didn't turn his head back to the ball as his whole season. Be real, CB is one of the hardest positions in sports. There will never be a CB who never gets beat or has a bad play. We need to stop expecting them to be flawless every play. I'll take a few slip ups from Grant considering how he played all year as a first year starter.

Furious George 27's picture

I agree mistakes happen I don't expect him to be perfect. However, I expect an upperclassman not to make the same mistake over and over and it happened way more than a few times. When WR turns and looks for ball the CB needs to do the same and his lack of doing the most fundamental of tasks for a CB led to some big plays, PI, and TDs and several occurred during the final 2 games.... With that said I believe we judging his good play against some very bad teams while he was not tasked with stopping the other team's best WR? 

Yeah, well…that’s just like, your opinion, man.

BAR43's picture

Just so you know, or maybe you do and your just knit picking. Turning your head around at the right time while guarding a WR might be the most difficult play in football. It is a skill that many NFL CB don't even have mastered. I think we need to take a step back and really evaluate this kid on a realistic level. Yea he got beat a few times, its gonna happen. But watching from your TV and yelling that he should have turned his head is much much harder than it looks or sounds. Its ok if you are not too familiar with the CB position or coaching, most people arent and really dont understand the difficulty involved in what you think is a "fundamental task".

Furious George 27's picture

I think its a fundamental task when staff writers, announcers and radio hosts also make the same comment. Just because you say its the "most" difficult, does not make it true. When a WR turns his head to locate the ball, that is a pretty good cue that the ball is coming.Its not really hard to figure out. If anything it really shows that all that grant is doing is running with the WR  and not focusing on the WR as he makes the play...... I am not sure what you are watching to say just a few times, if anything its happened a few times in each of the last 3 games (not to mention the whole season). Not sure why you are defending him so strongly, even the article states that he makes freshman mistakes. And watching from my TV makes me just as informed as anyone since I have the ability to watch replay and watch him just straight up interfere with a WR.... I guess you just don't notice it while you are on the sidelines during the game... I guess you should do a better job watching the game film since you have obviously missed it so many times. BTW I didn't say Grant was bad... Just don't believe he dersearves to be called "Good." Bottom line when he faced better WRs his play dropped.

Yeah, well…that’s just like, your opinion, man.

Arizona_Buckeye's picture

The good news - these units can only get better!!!

The best thing about Pastafarianism? It is not only acceptable, but advisable, to be heavily sauced

Buckeye_in_SEC_country's picture

Does anyone think they're waiting until after NSD to announce Ash?
My reasoning:  Most of the DB's coming in thought they were going to be coached by Coombs.  I don't think this would change anything for them, but it could.  I'm still one of those people wondering why he hasn't been "officially" announced.  

Ethos's picture

contract negotiations are never an instantaneous thing.

"What do you need water for, Sunshine?!" - Coach Coombs, if you don't love this man, you have no soul.

jamesrbrown322's picture

I think the 2104 DBs, and Defensive Unit as a whole, will be one that gets much better as the season progresses. I like the young DBs and LBs a lot, and am of the opinion that they'lll make some mistakes early, but gel by the time OSU hits the meat of its schedule - PSU, MSU, UM.
Honestly, I think Miller carries this team early, and gains confidence in the OLine as Elliott develops into a more athletic Raymont Harris type. Hopefully, younger play makers will push Smith and Spencer at WR, and as the season wears on, Miller relies more on his arm and OSU ends up being one of those teams that "no one wants to play" by the end of the year.

"I can accept failure, but I cannot accept not trying." - W.W. Hayes

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Elliott develops into a more athletic Raymont Harris type. 

I see EzE as a more muscular Tony Dorsett-type, LOL. 

jamesrbrown322's picture

I hope you're more accurate than my prediction then!

"I can accept failure, but I cannot accept not trying." - W.W. Hayes

Tjames43's picture

For what its worth Coach Coombs isnt listed as the Cornerbacks coach hes listed as a Defensive Backs coach, or at least that's what it says on his business card....
 
 

DC-town's picture

Regardless we now have the players in the secondary...safety is loaded, you have two veteran corners, two redshirt freshmen tall corners, and Webb and Lattimore who are both consensus top 100-
Sounds like Ash likes playing man note outside and these are the horses that can do it

'Piss excellence' -RB

Buckeye06's picture

Haha Lattimore is no longer in Rivals top 100.  Was a big thing last week that he said would just motivate him further.
The point is still well taken; he is a very talented player coming in, and probably should be top 100

Tjames43's picture

He is top 100 in the 247 composite and that's what I consider the most accurate because it combines the rankings from all of the sites.

W-burgbuck's picture

Just me and I am typically wrong but I firmly believe that our secondary is going to surprise us this year.... We will be young but our red shirts from 2013 will be better prepared than we give them credit for and there's no denying the young talent of the 2014 class...Bell and Apple will be buckeye favorites and I believe will help bring back the shutdown secondary we used to have...Webb will be a phenom but mat have to wait til 2015 to see his full potential...Worley should be our STAR...and for me Conley is my wild card but i am very hopeful.... Grant contrary to popular opinion is on the upswing and can only benefit from Ash and will hopefully learn to look back, not only to find the ball but to learn from his experiences (see what I did there).

As for Ash I'm no conspiracy theorists but we currently have the #2 recruiting class in the country and have had a good bit of coaching turnover on the defensive side of the ball; so does anyone else think that maybe they are going to wait til after NSD to officially announce Ash and his responsibilities, so they don't rock the boat with our current commits. Before I get a bunch of down votes, I'm not necessarily saying this pertaining to Fickel and his new role or possible lack of one, but this may also pertain to Coombs, I don't think Coombs will be let go by any means but they may not want to tell all of his recruits that he will be coaching primarily them on special teams and the new guy they haven't met will be their coach. Fickel and Coombs are both great recruiters and have built bonds with the 2014 class may be to late to rebuild those bonds if one of the 2 leaves and maybe a risk to inform them that the other won't be their primary coach.

W-burgbuck

OSUBias's picture

Isn't it possible that the "DB Coach" moniker for Ash is an umbrella and that Coombs would still coach the corners, but under Ash's direction/philosophy? It seems to be a fairly routine activity to bounce position coaches around or tweak their areas of responsibility in the offseason. Plus coaching two different positions plus the assumed play calling responsibility seems like a lot for one guy.
Looking forward to a much improved and more disciplined unit next year. We've had position groups improve by leaps and bounds the last couple of years (oline and WR's). We need similar growth from the defensive backfield (and LB's for that matter) for 2014 to be a success.

Shitter's full

gm3jones's picture

I can see how that would be alot, but how I look at it is he would know their strengths and weaknesses first hand. I am sure it would be alot to handle, but maybe that was wrong last year? We had Coombs and Withers coaching them up and Fickell calling plays that actually cater to their weakness (soft zone, tackling in space, what ever that weakness is).
And I think that coombs will be the ST and Recruiting guy. He is ranked #14 in the nation in recruiting, so we know he knows how to do that. Coaching corners? Not so sure of that after last year. I assume Meyer looked at his responsibilities long and hard and compared that to the tape,data, and so on.

There is nothing more remarkable as learning to think better.

W-burgbuck's picture

Probably exactly what will happen, Coombs will be Special teams coach and possibly recruiting coordinator by title but will still assist in the coaching of the DB'S but may be asked to change his techniques or change his philosophies. To a top tier recruit who is looking for the perfect fit to launch them into a multi million dollar NFL contract those little specifics, like a corner being recruited by a special teams coach, even if only in title, or an athlete not used to playing man coverage finding out the team he just committed to will now play mainly press man coverage (just an example) may be cause for worry. That being said finding out your main recruiter won't be there would be a huge deal breaker.
I think you are dead on about the "moniker" but I believe just as us as fans read into the little comments recruits make when we try to figure out where they will sign ; so do the recruits sometimes read to much into subtle changes or comments from their future school.

W-burgbuck

whobdis's picture

Ash has some interesting videos on D play..some are long but worth a look if you have the time. From what I can gather he like cover 2 has his base. But the corners play up and route the receivers..so not as much cushion as we are used to seeing. From what I've read I also think things may be simpler for the DB/LB's. Hopefully this means an easier learning curve for the new guys. Frankly I don't care what scheme we run..just be sound and know assignments. Simply removing blown assignments probably gives us wins the last two games..even as bad as the D played overall.
 

OSUBias's picture

I'm really interested to see if this actually happens (more press coverage). If you watch Wisconsin under his tutelage, they routinely gave a decent cushion. I'm not sure if that was personnel issues or if he has changed his tune, was working under someone else's overall philosophy, or what. But I watched those videos and they seem to clash with what Badger/Hog fans saw on the field.

Shitter's full

Crimson's picture

I watched the videos I could find, and he used cover 2 with pressing corners.  However, he specifically said that the coverage was for 3rd and ~7+.  I didn't really see any coverage that he talked about for 1st or 2nd down, although he did say that they played at lot of cover 2 and cover 4 recently (very rarely cover 3, some mentions of cover 1 looks).  Combined with Urban's preferences, I assume this means that they play some type of cover 4 on 1st and 2nd down, maybe even 3rd and short.  If there are any specific videos that talk about 1st and 2nd down or cover 4, can someone provide a link?

gm3jones's picture

How I look at it: no way we can get worse, right? I am sure we probably wont be no top 10 pass D, but I think it would be around the 30s-40s-- still significantly better than last year. What worries me is how is the run D going to be now? We lost our best tackler in Shazier, that is not easily replaced, especially with unprovenn talent like Mitchell, Johnson and so on.  

There is nothing more remarkable as learning to think better.

W-burgbuck's picture

I agree with you 100% on our D being in the 30s to 40s this year, I believe they will surprise some people this year.... though i don't think our secondary could get much worse. That being said my worries are along the O-line and our receivers, the talent is there in our receiving Corp but I only see 3 O-line men that I currently have confidence in but the important thing is I have a lot of confidence in their coach. With a D ranking in the 30s to 40s or better in all aspects and an offense somewhere near 2013 I think we could be contenders.

W-burgbuck

Knarcisi's picture

Well written and very honest.
I thought I read on here that Burrows and Powell were moving to FS and SS, respectively, and that Bell was moving to Star?  Either way, I think Powell is more a fit at S.  I'll take a little more athletic guy in Burrows or Bell at Star. 

GH_Lindsey's picture

I think this article was a little harsh on Grant. He was our best corner for most of the year and would probably get a "B" grade for the entire season. I still have a soft spot for him from the time he jumped an out route and got an interception that ended up being the difference in the game against NW.

NitroBuck's picture

Well said!  I agree that some people are too harsh on Doran Grant.  Overall, he played pretty well for a 1st year starter.  Yes, he still has more to learn (don't we all?).  If the main things he needs to learn are refinements on his technique, like when to look back for the ball, then he should be well ahead of the learning curve the younger guys will be facing. 

Ferio, tego

hetuck's picture

Unfortunately, the schedule won't give us an early answer. OSU better spend a considerable amount of time preparing for Navy option. They never did stop the QB follow play last time & Navy returns their outstanding QB. We will see if tackling improves real quick. 

Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.

Vince Lombardi

W-burgbuck's picture

I hate having navy on our schedule, their option attack is hard to stop and the constant chop blocks at the line are an injury waiting to happen. I love the idea of playing a service academy, and was actually at the shoe the last time we played them and it was a whale of a ball game. (Two point conversion picked and returned on the final play to save the game) The wear and tear on the players worries me.

W-burgbuck

Statutoryglory's picture

Worley is a TFL machine and had 8 or 9 Int TDs in hs his senior year.  Great instincts.