The Ohio State secondary is filled with familiar faces, but the on-field appearance couldn’t be more different. Subpar pass defense kept the Buckeyes out of the national championship game last season, with head coach Urban Meyer vowing to correct the deficiency.
Damaged pride has spurred a rapid movement. The biggest change is the disappearance of gaps – literally. Ohio State’s cornerbacks allowed receivers to gain position with sizable cushions in coverage. Those are gone.
“We’re playing a style of defense that is very appealing to me as a corners coach,” Kerry Coombs said last week. “Every single snap of spring football we have lined up in press coverage, and that’s the way we’re going to learn it. Then we’ll find out how we stack up when the fall comes around.”
A collaborative effort between Meyer, Coombs and safeties coach Chris Ash, who doubles as co-defensive coordinator, is set on ridding the Buckeyes from their disastrous 2013 pass defense, especially the final three-game embarrassment.
In March, Meyer admitted a date with Florida State in Pasadena was probable had the pass defense not self-destructed.
New this season is an aggressive man-to-man press coverage that’s geared toward limiting receivers’ options, beginning at the line of scrimmage. In the past, there was little contact at the snap, putting defensive backs in a rescue position once the ball was airborne.
“During the start of the season, I was a little shaky and I started to pick it up toward the end,” senior cornerback Doran Grant said. “I just felt like I was average. I know what I’ve got to do this offseason to become an All-Big Ten player, and that's what I’m going to do. Just work on the little things – recognizing formations and triggering to the ball better and making more plays.”
Grant has a stranglehold on one corner spot, while Armani Reeves, Gareon Conley and Eli Apple contend to be the second starter. Depth is paramount to Coombs because of the evolution of fast-paced offenses and arduous nature of press coverage. The departure of Bradley Roby, a possible first-round draft pick, leaves a hole on one side of the defense.
“We’re going to work our butts off.”– Doran Grant
The leading contender to replace the shutdown corner is Reeves, who started three games last year. While he received criticism for blown coverages and being out of position, Reeves approached the offseason with optimism. He recorded 26 tackles, seven pass breakups, an interception and a forced fumble – experience he hopes to build on.
“It’s a new year, fresh start,” Reeves said. “I can’t worry about what happened last year or even my freshman year. I have to worry about what’s going on right now and in the future. Working on my game and helping the young guys work on their game, too, because I’m only as good as they are and they’re only as good as I am. That’s what we’ve got to remember. It’s not just about one individual, it’s about the whole team.”
Safeties – and captains – Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett also must replaced. Combined with Roby, the trio tallied 175 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and eight interceptions.
Saturday marks the first public display of the new-look secondary. Daily challenges are meant to test the unit and fully prepare them for games. Coaches want to mimic game situations with the goal of making it an unpleasant event for pass-catchers by putting them on the offensive.
There became an infatuation with intercepting passes under former safeties coach Everett Withers. Creating turnovers is critical to defenses. But fewer materialized, as completions piled up for opposing offenses. Coombs and Ash differ philosophically from Withers, hoping for incompletions and welcoming of interceptions.
“It takes practice to play that way,” Coombs said. “Football is made up of a myriad of different schemes. There’s lots of different things, and it’s not like you can just say, ‘Hey, go put those guys up on the line of scrimmage and go play.’ It’s the scheme, it’s how everything fits together.
“I’m not blaming that on anybody, but that was not what we were doing. We did it at times, but we didn’t make it our base concept. It was an adjustment. Now it is our base alignment, and we will adjust off of that.”
Coaches aren’t the only excited party – players have joined in on the enthusiasm. Jamming opponents at the line of scrimmage is more appealing than backpedaling. They believe it’s a nod to their strengths due to size, speed and athleticism.
The operative word with Grant, Reeves and Co. is fun. Enjoyment was zapped out of the secondary at times a year ago. There’s been no such sequel during the spring. It doesn’t assure an upgrade, but positive results appear imminent.
“Our whole team is liking it. We’re buying into it, and we appreciate this defense,” Grant said. “We’re going to work our butts off.”