Ross Fulton's Spring Game Takeaways: The New Look Ohio State Defense

By Ross Fulton on April 15, 2014 at 1:15p

Although one should be cautious in drawing too much from a split squad scrimmage where most returning starters were held out, the Spring Game nonetheless provided insight into schematic frameworks and individual position battles. Below I examine the main takeaway from the scrimmage – the Buckeyes' new look defense under Chris Ash.

A Complete Makeover

Anyone who believed that Ash was not brought in to transform the defense was quickly disabused of that notion Saturday. The Buckeye defensive framework was entirely different from last season.

Up front, the defense played a 4-3 under or over to the offense's formation strength. The defensive linemen's roles are altered. Previously, the Buckeye front four played techniques, such as as a one-technique nose guard or three technique defensive tackle. And the defender aligned wherever that technique was called in the front. In practice, that meant that the defensive line would flip sides depending upon the call to play that technique. So for, instance, with an over call the three technique played to the call, while with an under he aligned away from the call.

But the Buckeye defensive coaches have moved away with that model. Now, the Buckeye defensive linemen stay to the left and right side, i.e. a left defensive tackle and right defensive tackle. They will then slide to a technique depending upon the call. So the left defensive tackle may be a three technique one play but a one technique the next. This provides for less specialization but allows the defense to more easily adjust to shifts and motions by the offense. It also fits well with Ohio State's front four personnel, particularly its starting defensive tackles Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington, neither of which are traditional nose guards. 

A Flip Flop 

As to the second level defenders, the primary change is that the Sam and Will linebacker's roles are flipped.

In Ohio State's 4-3 under defense last season the Sam was a bigger linebacker whose primary role was to jam the tight end and maintain edge support. Now the Sam – where Darron Lee and Chris Worley are competing to start – is a hybrid linebacker/safety position. Against the Buckeye offense's spread formations, the Sam often aligned in space over the slot receiver.

The New D

The Will linebacker – manned by Josh Perry – is an in the box player, often aligning in the weak side B gap. Perry played Sam linebacker last year, and his transition from Sam to WIll is perhaps the most concrete example of the flipping of the linebacker roles. The Mike rounds out the linebacking trio, aligning to the strong side B gap. 

The linebackers as a unit have expanded duties. Unlike last season, when the Buckeye coaches generally brought in their nickel defender against spread offenses, the Spring Game featured exclusively base defense with three linebackers. This is part of the Buckeyes' plan, and why the Sam position features hybrid players such as Lee.

According to Urban Meyer, when the Buckeyes do utilize nickel it will be with Armani Reeves as a third cornerback. This demonstrates the Buckeye nickel defense is now reserved for pass-heavy down and distances. Ash will entrust his base defense to a wider variety of situations, including against spread to run offenses.

A Seismic Shift

But the secondary is perhaps where the Buckeye defense has undergone the biggest transition. Gone is cover 3 as the base coverage. As surmised, in its place is cover 4.  Pre-snap the Buckeyes aligned from a cover 4 shell, and the coverage was utilized on a majority of snaps. To play cover 4, the Buckeyes consistently aligned in press coverage, employing what is known as a a loose man shadow press technique.

When the Buckeyes did not play cover 4, the secondary shifted at the snap to cover 1 robber. One safety would rotate to the middle of the field with the other coming down in man coverage. The Mike or Will filled the underneath zone robber role with the remaining linebackers locked in man.

In sum, the coverage calls fulfilled Meyer and Ash's promise to utilize more aggressive coverage schemes. As a result, the Buckeye defense does not resemble last season's unit. It instead closely resembles a defense that caused difficulty for Meyer's and other team's offenses in recent years – Pat Narduzzi's Michigan State defenses. 


Comments Show All Comments

Furious George 27's picture

I noticed this yesterday when it was mentioned that Reeves will be the 3rd CB in Nickel coverage.... Is that to mean that he is not the starter? I know a rotation was mentioned but it sounds like he is not first man up.

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

+2 HS
bignut2017's picture

Who will start opposite of Doran Grant if Aramni Reeves isn't starting.

"Championships aren't won on Saturdays, they're won on Tuesdays in August" Kerry Coombs

-1 HS
Wesleyburgess1's picture

Armani is the nickel corner only in nickel. When we are in the regular 4-3 he is competing with Gareon Conley and Eli Apple for the starting field corner. Most likely he will start at that spot and slide in when in nickle. Gareon will be the field corner only when in nickle.

d5k's picture

I have seen conflicting information but it also sounds like the top 4 are Grant, Reeves, Conley, Apple with Grant the only clear starter.  It also sounds like they will rotate some since we are playing more press coverage which is more strenuous.

+2 HS
45OH4IO's picture

At the practice I watched, most of the praise was given to Eli, Armani, and Gareon...

Earle's picture

the Buckeye defense does not resemble last season's unit

That is the most promising thing I have read since the Orange Bowl.

Snarkies gonna snark. 

+15 HS
rufio's picture

Ross, did the front look like an Over G to you at times during the spring game? I was watching on TV but it looked like sometimes instead of a 1-tech we would actually be lined up at a 2i.

+2 HS
Ross Fulton's picture

Good catch.  I agree with you on that, which is another similarity to MSU's schemes.

rufio's picture

Thanks! Did you notice when we seemed to use one or the other? Its hard for me to tell when they are lined up at 1 vs 2i during a live game, let alone what might cause us to make that adjustment.

Crimson's picture

All hail Ross!  He sounds happy, and I think we should all be.

+1 HS
d5k's picture

They probably had more than 2 identities on defense but by design they had at least 2 the last few years.  I thought it would make sense to just go with the hybrid/nickel defense full time but I like structuring it like a base 4-3 with a hybrid OLB.  Either way, having 1 scheme and identity should help a ton.

+4 HS
Squirrel Master's picture

so what does this mean to the star position? Will it be based on matchups who will play in the nickel, either a corner or a safety? This will be interesting because last year it seemed like there were 3 safeties a lot of the time instead of 3 LB or 3 corners.

It was all that I cared to look for in the spring game, press coverage. And boy did they impress me. Many were complaining about the lackluster scoring and offense but I saw short routes get jumped on very well by the defense. With so much action inside the first 10 yards, more QBs will get rattled and I see more sacks and pressures.

I saw a UFO told me to have a goodyear!

+1 HS
d5k's picture

What I gleaned is that the Sam in the new scheme behaves like a combination of the Will and the Star in the old schemes.  While the Will in the new scheme is more of a traditional LB rather than an undersized LB (Will/Star last year) or on the line of scrimmage (Sam last year).

My question is whether this makes the Mike/Will more interchangeable.

Ross Fulton's picture

I completely agree with re the Sam being pretty equivalent to the Star in previous years.


I think Mike and Will are somewhat interchangeable, though the Will will likely have more man coverage responsibilities.

Buckeye_in_SEC_country's picture

Is there any doubt that this defense is now Ash's defense with Fickell basically being a LB coach?  

+3 HS
d5k's picture

It's safe to say that it is a scheme that Ash has more experience with but hopefully all the coaches are on the same page which appears to be the case this time.  I would think Fickell and perhaps Larry Johnson will be heavily involved in game planning on top of unit leader duties.

+2 HS
Buckeye_in_SEC_country's picture

I agree.  No doubt that all defensive coaches will be apart of putting the game plan together, but the scheme and coverages are all Ash.  

+2 HS
whobdis's picture

Frankly I think this is good for Luke..he pretty much knew what he learned under he's getting some understanding of different schemes


IGotAWoody's picture

I like that Ash has his guys watching video of the Seahawks from last year. What they do is almost identical to what Narduzzi and Dantonio do, but they do it on it's most elite level. Emulate the best, then BECOME the best! 

“The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.” ~Carl Rogers

+6 HS
southbay's picture

Watching the Super Bowl it seemed like their DL guys were all really fast, so I was thinking the new scheme with Bennett and Washington both playing inside is more like that.  +1

+1 HS
Mean Mr Mustard's picture

No more "Bend and Break" defense!!

+2 HS
MikeLew's picture

Ross- I didn't get a chance to watch the Spring Game, but I have watched a fair bit of Sparty's film from last year, and went to Mike Tressel's talk at the Coaches' Clinic here in Columbus - did you see OSU's LBs coming downhill much more aggressively in the run game? Watching MSU, their LBs look like they are almost blitzing once they get the read.

Zimmy07's picture

I re-watched the 1st quarter last night before getting tired - only watching the LB's.  I saw #5 McMillan doing that but not #37 Perry.  I don't know if that is his hesitation or if by design.

GrayDay's picture

Great stuff, Ross, thanks.  I've read that part of the solution this year was to simplify things, thereby clarifying assignments and enabling guys to trigger more quickly.  I know they weren't facing the A team offense, but from your watch of the game, did it look like they were getting more of the desired execution they seek?


BeijingBucks's picture

My fAvorite part of this defensive shift is it allows the players to learn a base defense role really well with just some subtle adjustments to react to an offensive scheme. 

Unlike in Madden defense is not a Rock Paper Scissors match up but rather players knowing their job and executing well. 


If we already see improvement in the spring game... I think they're on to something!

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

+2 HS
d5k's picture

Nailed it... we used Roshambo defense last year.  Every week we attempted to change from rock to paper to scissors based on what we thought the opponent would throw.  This defense is a little bit of each and can transform post-snap to adapt to what the offense does dynamically.

rosycheeks's picture

I hardly understood a word of this, and it sounded glorious.

+8 HS
IH8UOFM's picture

That makes 2 of us.

+1 HS

Who leaves the field when the nickleback is brought in?

rosycheeks's picture

Not sure about your question, but I leave when Nickleback is turned on.

+9 HS
IGotAWoody's picture

One more reason to love you, Rosycheeks! My man crush just went up a notch!

“The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.” ~Carl Rogers

Brandon26841's picture

In recent years it was always the SAM LB that left the field in the nickel, but I'm assuming in this defense the WILL will leave.


I'm going to guess that when they go to nickel, Perry will slide over from WILL to MIKE, Grant leaves the field, and Reeves come in at NB.

whobdis's picture

Honestly I didn't notice the change up front..but the change of the coverage was pretty dramatic. I can't stress how impressed I was with Apple. The guy has the size to route a receiver but still stay with him.  Both him and Conley are perfect for this type of play imo. My only concern would be PI calls as I seen some rather physical play well past the 5 yards. MSU was hit with that early last year. We'll see...but it sure looks good at this point


+2 HS
Zimmy07's picture

I saw the hands still on after 5yds as well.  Maybe they figure that if Sparty got away with it last year - why not mimic it?

+1 HS
Zimmy07's picture

One thing that worried me while re-watching the spring game was the defensive alignment against 5 wides.  Unless I'm mistaken all 3 LB's were pulled into pass coverage so that the back end could stay in quarters (I think).

It looked as if there were 4 D-linemen and 0 Linebackers which made me worried about how a QB draw would be defended.  I guess the Safeties have the QB draw in that situation?


ghalephoto's picture

Chris Ash is awesome, I was wrong he knows exactly what he's doing.  Glad to have him!!