Safety School

By Ramzy Nasrallah on January 29, 2014 at 11:15a

Ohio State's magical 2002 championship run was not immune to the finicky Buckeye fan base finding reasons to whine.

There were two primary culprits en route to not fully-enjoying that historic 14-0 run: First was the Tresselball philosophy which provided maddening drama to victories over mediocre teams (think about how much cooler Holy Buckeye might have been if it happened against a worthier foe than sucky six-loss Purdue).

The second was co-captain and four-year starting safety Donnie Nickey, whose signature play as a Buckeye was...well, you decide.

Was is getting spun around like a top shortly after Holy Buckeye only to get bailed out by Chris Gamble? Awkwardly batting Ken Dorsey's final pass into the air where it could have been caught for a game-tying TD?

The perfectly-executed fake punt roll-out pass to him which might have transformed the 2000 Michigan game that basically hit him in the face before hitting the ground?

Nickey was the only reliably invisible player on that insane defense. Your prevailing memories of him are mostly likely his consistency in arriving at the scene of a tackle shortly after the whistle. Following games on grass you would have a hard time finding a cleaner jersey on a starter. 

Aiding in creating the scrutiny around his play was the fact his fellow safeties were Mike Doss and Will Allen, both of whom were highlight machines. On top of that, he and Doss replaced Rob Kelly and Damon Moore, both of whom were all over the field for four years. 

But Nickey was a relative non-factor on a defense overflowing with game-changers. His real value to the team was that of a solidifying force in the locker room, not unlike the comfort Jim Bollman brings to Michigan State as Team Grandpa with play-calling privileges and roster management obligations safely out of his reach.

Yes, Nickey was persona non-grata on one of Ohio State's most legendary defenses. And in 2014 you would take him back in a second, because at the very least Nickey could actually find the pile before jumping on it.

COME BACK HERE, SOLDIERNickey could start on all 12 OSU teams since his departure.

It's been a dozen seasons since Nickey graced play-ending whistles with his presence. Try to name any Buckeye safety since then - with no regard to role specificity (star, FS, SS) - who had greater impact (on the field) than he did.

Donte Whitner? Kurt Coleman? Jermale Hines? Christian Bryant? Sure, they're arguable. That's also four guys in 12 years whose awards of distinction - collectively - could fit on a modest shelf.

Tyler Everett, Orhian Johnson, Brandon Mitchell, Anderson Russell, Rocco Pentello, Zach Domicone, CJ Barnett? Probably not. You might need OJ Simpson's legal team to win that argument.

[deep inhale] Pitt Brown, Sirjo Welch, Thomas Matthews, Nick Patterson, Curt Lukens, Aaron Gant, Nate Oliver, Jamie Wood, Chad Hagan, Grant Schwartz, Najee Murray, DerJuan Gambrell? [crickets]

All of those guys were scholarship safeties. Some of them even saw the field. Oh, and there were others too.

Eugene Clifford never made it to Columbus. Jeremy Cash's star is still shining, but at Duke. Jamario O'Neal was a five-star film junkie can't miss recruit and is now Ohio State's flagship example of peeing in the recruiting ratings punch bowl.

Of course it's unfair to blame the players entirely for how lean quality safety play has been. Coaching matters too, right? That's why Ohio State's position gurus make hundreds of thousands of dollars to mentor just a handful of athletes to become better at, uh, safetying.

It's been a full system failure. Since Nickey left the Buckeyes have managed to develop some ferocious defensive lines, linebacking corps and corners. But over those past dozen seasons they have steadily accumulated a collection of absolutely mediocre safeties.

At the very least Ohio State annually deserves a Doss or a Moore-caliber stopper who is smart, aware, agile and devastatingly violent. Moore was the ballyhooed Quarterback of the Defense for his final two seasons, calling the plays and reading field. Imagine an Ohio State safety in that role today.

Jack Tatum-type hits are now cause for ejection, but the threat of a Jack Tatum hit is still legal, for now. That threat is only possible through field awareness, and what the Buckeyes have had recently at his position are lost-in-space Indiana-caliber defenders getting exploited in game after game.

Ohio State's scheme features a star, a traditional strong safety in run support and, well - Ross can best explain how the Buckeye secondary operates. It returns Ron Tanner and Vonn Bell, both of whom have shown promise in their brief careers, although ol' Pitt somehow played ahead of both of them last season.

Ohio State ANNUALLY deserves a Doss-caliber STOPPER who is smart, aware, agile and devastatingly violent.They'll also have Devan Bogard (multiple torn ACLs) Jayme Thompson (broken ankle) and newcomer Erick Smith, as well as redshirt freshmen Darron Lee and Christopher Worley (whose parents, Chris and Michelle, named both him and a sister Chris and his other sister Chrishelle) (I felt this was important enough to mention).

So there's depth and potential, but that's it as of now. When Bryant went down that effectively killed Ohio State's title hopes. The reality is the Buckeyes have been both thin and mostly pitiful at the position for the better part of a decade.

That's what made getting Vonn Bell so critical to last year's recruiting class. As a five-star recruit he's already better than O'Neal was, which isn't exactly the highest hurdle on the track, but it's a start. Ohio State's safety play has to improve if this defense is going to ever find its way out of the wilderness again.

Nickey wound up playing in the NFL for nine seasons almost exclusively on special teams, exploiting that treasured locker room glue-talent of his for millions of dollars. And he never missed the opportunity to jump on a pile, largely because he was actually talented enough to find it.

Ohio State could use another guy like him. Hopefully he's on the team right now.


Comments Show All Comments

Jack Fu's picture

'02-'03 was my senior year at OSU. I literally never heard anyone say these types of things about Donnie Nickey.

Try to name any Buckeye safety since then - with no regard to role specificity (star, FS, SS) - who had greater impact (on the field) than he did.

In addition to Whitner, Coleman, and Hines, I would add Nate Salley without hesitation. Probably Will Allen too. I think we've had very good safety play the last decade, '11-'13 excepted.

osu07asu10's picture

I always thought of Nickey as solid but I think Ramzy's description holds water pretty well.

CJDPHoS Board of Directors // Best friends with Homey Hache

The 0 is silent.

jamesrbrown322's picture

Nickey was freshman All-American, two time honorable mention All-Big Ten. I think he just reached his peak early, then plateaued. Plus, when compared his contemporary at safety (three time All American Doss), he appeared to lack any sort of play making Robb Kelly without the blitzing.

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." - Winston Churchill

Blackbeards Delight's picture

I think it had something to do with all the cigarettes that dude smoked. I was a couple of years younger but whenever I saw him out, Panini South, The Spot, The Edge, Maxwells, and so on, he was crushing some smokes!

"Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 23yr, it's what's for breakfast"

- Me


ToledoMan's picture

Nickey looked like an All American compared with what we have seen lately.

OSUBias's picture

Very good for a decade, except for 30% of the decade. Um, ok.
I wouldn't say very good (personally), but even if you say very good, it pales in comparison to the other positions on the defense, where we have had at least one and usually several exceptional players. Whitner and Coleman were by far the best of that collection, but neither were lights out.
For me, every OSU team has a "that guy" who just drives me nuts. Think JB Shugarts. Some years, one on each side of the ball. For just about every year in the last 12 years, it has been a safety if there was one of the defense (the last couple of years have had LBs on the shitlist too).

7 yards and a cloud of dust is a beautiful thing

jamesrbrown322's picture

Will Allen was 1st Team All American I believe, but he immediately followed Doss-Nickey, so I get the point.
What's funny about referencing the 2002 D, is how mediocre they were vs. the pass...just shut down the run, opportunistic, and awesome in the red zone.

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." - Winston Churchill

saltybuck61's picture

JB Shugarts was that guy for his entire career at Ohio State. Orhian Johnson was my guy from 2012. Pitt Brown from 2013. 
I can't wait to see who it will be this year.

OSUBias's picture

I'm just thankful every year when I remember that I could be watching a team QB'd by Bellisari.

7 yards and a cloud of dust is a beautiful thing

BuckeyeStrong2's picture

lest we not forget the Bauser-Bombs!


HighBallAce's picture

Bellisari was Joe Montana compared to Bauser-Bomb! Every time I see one of Bauserman's throws Someday Bauserman will be sitting around telling his kids how he was a stud

saltybuck61's picture

I choose to forget. Too much pain comes with those memories.

NitroBuck's picture

You are dead on regarding Whitner, Coleman, Hines and Salley.  There is no "probably" about Will Allen...dude was a consensus first team All-American.  After what we've seen the past few years, I'm glad Chris Ash is taking over the position coaching duties.

Ferio.  Tego.

DefendOhio's picture

Any news on Bryant? I remember reading a couple weeks ago he was still fighting the NCAA for an extra year.

JozyMozy's picture

Not gonna happen, if I recall correctly. Extremely lame. 
also, best caption on the top pic. 

PittBuckeye's picture

Yeah that ship sailed, playing in a useless bowl game after coming back from his first big injury killed his case I guess.

Dr. Ninjutzu's picture

Mike Doss is my fav buckeye of all time. I have a framed cover of the ESPN mag with him on it from 2002. 

toad1204's picture

Him kneeling at midfield after betting ttsun is an image burned into my mind forever.  Mostly because I was standing 5 feet away.

Nothing like dancing on the field in 02... 

acBuckeye's picture

Yeah, he's pretty awesome.

Buckabroad's picture

Thank you for mentioning the Assassin. One of the greatest Buckeyes, and players, of all time. Probably the hardest, nastiest hitter ever.

"The minute we stop expecting greatness, we become Wisconsin."

JakeBuckeye's picture

Wasn't Grant Schwartz a receiver? I just remember him because for a while it seemed like he was our only California kid.

shadybuck's picture

We've got a turd in the punch bowl

DJ Byrnes's picture

Mike Doss! Love that dude.

Californian by birth, Marionaire by the Grace of President Warren G. Harding.

JDunc686's picture

The coaches seem extremely excited about Tyvis Powell. Barring injury or troubles, it seems like he and Bell are almost locked in at the Safety positions for next season. Thoughts?

shadybuck's picture

I think they probably like Tyvis best in the star position because even though he is tall he is a bit of a corner/safety "tweener", i think for the deep 2 Bogard and Bell would be the best 2 with Tyvis playing the star

TimmyZ's picture

I thought I had heard that they were moving Bogard (and Daron Lee) to Linebacker.

Brandon26841's picture

Yeah, they're both at the WILL Lber right now.

whobdis's picture

I just read (can't remember where) that Powell is moving to safety..I think someone copied it from his twitter.

Squirrel Master's picture

I was about to say, NO mention of Tyvis Powell when listing the current possible starters! WTF!
Actually, it is going around that Tyvis and Bell will be the starting safeties and that Cam Burrows will be taking over the STAR position. Now people equate STAR to a hybrid of a corner/safety, much like a nickel. Really a STAR is a hybrid of a linebacker/safety. Mainly because the linebacker comes out for the STAR. So they have to have the roaming capability of a safety or DB, but the size to take on a linebackers duties in the case of a run play or covering a bigger TE downfield.

I saw a UFO told me to have a goodyear!

whobdis's picture

I'm not sure the current staff used the Star in the same fashion that our previous staff did. Hines was one our best 'star' players imo. The guy could sniff out screens and pass to the flat better than anyone. We really miss that now. You need someone who is very instinctive. It will be interesting to see how Ash uses he 5th db.

andretolstoy's picture

C'mon. Nickey wasn't that bad :)

BucksFan2000's picture

Interesting post.  One thing that made me nervous this year was that our safeties didn't seem to play well together.  This goes back to last season, and even before the injury this year.  Yes our secondary was horrible, but our safeties seem out of position more often than corners simply getting beat.
Doss and Nickey did play well together though, and I think that was a big strength on that team.  Co-captains too.  They really solidified what was the best OSU defense I've seen.
Nickey also had one of the better NFL careers from that team.  It was on special teams so you can't compare to someone like Will Smith, but still a great career.

buckeye85's picture

That is because Coombs and Withers did not communicate well which led to total dysfunction in the secondary.  Withers was a huge problem and having a proven DB's coach like Ash to teach these kids the fundamentals and where to be on the field will go miles in making the defense better.  If the defense can improve by 10-14 points a game, I see this team having a chance to go undefeated again.  Brax is a senior and there is a ton of young talent spread all over the field, so the offense should be just as good so long as they achieve better balance and the Oline holds up.

klfeck's picture

Of all the safeties mentioned, Coleman is the only one who really stands out. I remember more than one occasion where he literally saved the day for OSU. 



Proud parent of a Senior at The Ohio State University

NitroBuck's picture

I dunno, Whitner was certainly BA.  I still remember him standing over Vince Young after a wicked take-down.  I think Donte gets forgotten because he left early for the NFL.  Guy has been a solid starter in the league for a long time.

Ferio.  Tego.

Shangheyed's picture

Jack agree... wish we had Nickey back there this year...

COhio Buckeye's picture

Devastatingly violent...absolutely, but given rule changes since that magical '02-'03 season, I want a guy that is nasty with sure tackling and good pursuit angles.  Too many times our safties misjudged the opponents' speed and/or their own in breaking up plays / making tackles.  Give me a guy that plays smart, diagnoses the play, is blazing fast in pursuit, arrives with his head up, secures the runner and brings him to the ground!  
Here is my favorite about physical!  Love Malcolm...there's a reason this guy has a Super Bowl ring and is still dominating as a safety in the NFL!

vitaminB's picture

 Loved Malcolm Jenkins but he was a shut down corner at tOSU.
As a Bear fan I think the lack of safety play might be a bigger issue.  They've gone through a ton of safeties who aren't worth a damn since Mike Brown's body failed him.

COhio Buckeye's picture

I show Malcolm because he could have easily played safety at tOSU as he is now in the NFL.  The guy played with aggression, anger and a ton of energy.  He didn't just want to make the tackle, he wanted to take your soul

OSUStu's picture

Sirjo Welch

To be honest, I can't even remember having heard this guy's name before.

If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.  ~ Bruce Lee

TimmyZ's picture

me neither. Sounds made up..... like Art Vandelay

jamesrbrown322's picture

I remember...he was quite a let down...
You can check it out here

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." - Winston Churchill


I love this 'sad but so true' post
Even when we had Lovie Smith coaching the DBs back in the 90s, the safeties were consistently outshined by their CB brethren that has remained through the 21st century (eg, Marlon Kerner, Ty Howard, Shawn Springs, Antoine Winfield, Ahmed Plummer, etc etc).  Damon Moore and Doss were absolute beasts, and even then, you could argue that both were awesome on run support and so-so on pass coverage.
In the 90s, the only true safety who I can recall making an impression with my feeble memory (thanks to cooper I had to find a happy place) was Tito Paul, and even then, his memorable play was on a special teams punt coverage - cue highlight reel of Tito (I'm pretty sure it was Tito) layed out in full superman mode on a perfectly timed 'silver bullet defining moment' destruction of a Michigan State player who caught the ball and instantaneously got annihilated (I believe Fred Pagac named Silver bullet after this hit - not sure)
But it other than this... Ramzy is right... We have not had that many memorable safety plays or players...

"I don't apologize for anything.  When I make a mistake, I take the blame and go on from there." - Woody Hayes

Hovenaut's picture

Your name speaks to me....
I remember Gary Berry being solid - I think he was in betwix Kelly and Nickey, iirc.


Brother Hove - how could I forget Gary Berry!  Thanks for the flashback... I always thought his body type was more receiver-like, butI believe he was one of the few who were good in pass coverage - honestly, it's such a small sample size I can't remember even the good ones anymore ;p 

"I don't apologize for anything.  When I make a mistake, I take the blame and go on from there." - Woody Hayes

Hovenaut's picture

He always seemed around the ball.
The '02 D gets much-deserved love, but I've caught myself wishing some of the recent versions of the Buckeye secondary performed like the mid to late 90's versions.


My sentiments exactly.  Nickey or no Nickey, if we get back to even half the defense we used to be, I'd feel like a made man.  Let me know if you're ever in my 'hood (NYC), I'll buy some beers and we can represent the Buckeyes here in Manhattan.

"I don't apologize for anything.  When I make a mistake, I take the blame and go on from there." - Woody Hayes

Bugsyk's picture

Gary Berry!  King of the Pile-on tackle!

kcbrez's picture

While I don't dispute the facts as they are outlined here, I'm not so sure this characterization of Nickey is entirely fair. But good Lord that defense was amazing.

Curt Heinrichs's picture

The thing that stuck out most to me in this article was the name Rob Kelly. That dude was violent in the defensive backfield (and often in the offensive backfield). 
I've heard that Nickey was excellent in the classroom as well as a starter on the field. Good for him, if it's true because 9 years of NFL only would last me...the rest of my life. 
Great work, Ramzy. 

jamesrbrown322's picture

Oh how I miss guys like Moore and Doss that would punish WRs, could cover TEs and stuffed the run.
Don't overlook Dustin Fox, who was a pretty good safety, but was moved to CB, where he was pretty subpar...
One that gets routinely forgotten is that Steve Bellisari was a stud safety in high school, but became the QB because Moherman, who was a big time recruit, was an epic failure at QB. It's amazing how a disappointment at one position affects others.

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." - Winston Churchill

Ohioste's picture

Donnie went to the same high school as I did and I remember watching him his senior year, my eighth grade year and just remember he could run against just about anybody. London was our big rival at the time, and it was an away game and they just couldn't stop him. At least that's how I remember it. 
I was always excited to watch him play for the bucks, but yes, I don't know if he ever made that big play. I know they were taught to knock the ball down for the national championship game, but it would have looked much better had he intercepted the ball. I'm going to have to go back and rewatch the 2000 Michigan game. I don't remember the pass that was thrown to him. 
All in all, he's still the best athlete to come out of Plain City, so at least there's that! 

Buckeye Chuck's picture

I didn't think Nickey was all that bad. He was forced into the lineup before he was ready, and I think some fans continued to hold that against him even after he improved.
Looking at that list of safeties who never developed, I notice an awful lot of players whose careers were done in by injuries. I'm not sure if there are more than at the average position, but it sure seems that way. Even Anderson Russell and C.J. Barnett, who did contribute, had 3 major injuries between them.

The most "loud mouth, disrespect" poster on 11W.

NitroBuck's picture

Anderson Russell had his moments when he shined, and others of colossal failure.  Tough to forget how he made a misguided effort to break on the ball in the Fiesta Bowl against Texas.  Had he played the man, Buckeyes probably would have won that game.  Instead he missed both the ball and the man, and the Horns scored the game winning TD.  But I agree with you about Barnett.  He was pretty solid.  The problems in the secondary over the past two years were far deeper than the talent level of the players.  They were schematic, systemic, and largely the result of ineffective coaching.

Ferio.  Tego.

BoFuquel's picture

Vonn Bell will be the only underclassman to start in the defensive backfield through October. That's life at TOSU. GO BUCKS!

I wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then.

tennbuckeye19's picture

I don't really remember Nickey being all that bad, but as you pointed out, he had a great cast around him.
I moved to Nashville the same year he was drafted by the Titans and followed his NFL career. He played his whole career with the Titans and was a career special teamer. He was actually the special teams captain for many years and Jeff Fisher loved the guy cause he was a good locker room guy and team player and all that. Fans and radio talk show hosts in town would complain about him only being a special teamer and taking up a defensive back roster spot when he never played db. They finally released him a few years back. 

bucknutcrazee80's picture

Vonn Bell has big play making ability. Tyvis Powell is going to do very well also. I just can't wait to see what this new safeties coach/co-defensive coordinator can do with this much help needed secondary.


Bolt's picture

Errbody always forgets about Will Allen. He only had one season as the starter (thanks to being in Doss's shadow) but was an all-american and was absolutely awesome that year. For my money I'd take that '03 defense over the '02 defense most days of the week. 

Crumb's picture

Minus Wilhelm, Peterson, and Doss? Nah. 02 D held ttun to 3 FGs, 03 D gave up 35 points to em.

"The only good thing about it is winning the d*** thing" - Urban Meyer on The Game The War

Bolt's picture

Plus Allen (all-american filling in for Doss), plus Hawk, plus Whitner, sans Donnie Nickey. Plus you've got Chris Gamble playing a full season at corner for the first time and I recall him being an even better corner in '03 than in '02. Plus the overall progression of the guys who returned like Will Smith. I thought I recalled OSU's '03 defense being even more statistically impressive than the '02 version. And that even included the triple overtime thriller against NC State and T.A. McClendon that skewed the stats a bit. Both I'd certainly be thrilled with. In looking back at some of the stats and scorers I guess I'd have to lean toward '02 as well. I guess the '02 version was slightly more bend but don't break while the '03 was more big play and got burned by some good players from time to time.

Killer nuts's picture

Donnie Nickey fighting Vince Young in training camp...

Crumb's picture

Donnie Nickey may not have been as talented as some other guys to play safety at OSU but he had as much heart as anybody. We can find fault all we want but how many other Buckeyes playing safety had had 14 straight wins and an National Championship to show for their efforts?

"The only good thing about it is winning the d*** thing" - Urban Meyer on The Game The War

Larryp713's picture

I think it comes down to scheme and the influx of spread offenses. It changes how the Buckeyes have used safeties. There is also the drop off of LB play that has force safeties to support more against the run. The safeties have become subtly more important in the last decade.



NashBuckeye's picture

Not only did the Titans have Donnie Nickey for his whole NFL career, but Robert Reynolds also "played" for the Titans during part of that time period.  Being a Titans fan, I thought it was funny to be watching two of the least talented players on that historic 2002 defense playing on Sunday each week.
When he was at OSU, my wife always joked that they should sell advertising on Donnie Nickey's jersey since he was always in the picture at the end of the play...Never forgot that.

Seattle Linga's picture

That was good - thanks for the laughter