The excuses and pleas have dried up, none being defensible. Simply put, Ohio State’s defense wasn’t at a championship level last season.
“Quite honestly, I don’t think we were ready. We weren’t good enough on defense,” head coach Urban Meyer said last week. “You can’t play defense the way we did. You have to fix it. You don’t blame people, you go fix it. And, by the way, you can’t fix it in one day – not when it’s some deep-rooted stuff.”
The Buckeyes allowed 115 points in their final three games, losing two of them, and the pass defense ranked 112th nationally. Those gory details contributed to a change in defensive philosophy.
A staff overhaul in the secondary occurred when Everett Withers took a job at James Madison. Meyer proceeded to lure Chris Ash away from Bret Bielema. All Ash has done in a matter of months is change the coverage scheme and instill confidence in those associated with the program.
Snug coverages tend to do that after years of 10-yard cushions.
“He’s very knowledgeable of the game,” sophomore safety Tyvis Powell said when asked about Ash. “He’s very confident in what he’s teaching.”
In Saturday’s spring game, there were only two offensive touchdowns, and those came on short running plays. The two teams combined for 277 passing yards with no pass play stretching farther than 33 yards. Braxton Miller standing by as a casual observer helped the defense. But the unit’s buy-in rate has been 100 percent.
“Gareon Conley is one of the most improved players on this team and Armani Reeves, so we had two pretty good corners out there,” Meyer said. “Doran Grant had a great spring.”
Reeves is vying to lessen the sting of Bradley Roby’s departure. It’s Reeves, Conley and Eli Apple who are battling to start opposite Grant. Reeves started three games last season with mixed results, but the experience served its purpose. If not for that, Ohio State’s inexperience would be even more substantial.
Those games gave Reeves the belief he can compete in the Big Ten, which grows pass-happier with each season. He finished with 26 tackles, seven pass breakups, an interception and a forced fumble. There was also a series of defensive breakdowns that led to big gains for opposing offenses, sometimes even touchdowns.
“I feel ready, I feel confident,” Reeves said. “I think that’s half the battle when you’re a corner. I’m going to play with confidence, and I know I can do this job. I’m not worried at all.”
Said Grant: “Armani had a great spring, especially in the nickel position. He was making plays. He grew up a lot, and I'm excited to see what he brings in the fall. I feel like he’s ready. He’s been working hard in the offseason. His voice is up passing the energy.”
Reeves slid over to nickelback when the Buckeyes use an extra defensive back, with Conley or Apple playing the second corner position.
An oft-used cliché will come to life at cornerback this season – it doesn’t matter who starts, it’s who finishes. Cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs made it clear that Reeves, Conley and Apple would all play. The specifics are to be determined.
There’s a self-awareness factor for Reeves. He understands the murmurs from the outside questioning his worthiness. For him, though, doubters serve as motivation, which is the same instinct that kicks into overdrive when he watches film of blown coverages.
Coombs is firmly entrenched in Reeves’ corner (no pun intended). He trusts Reeves’ on-field decision making, but it’s work ethic where Coombs effuses praise.
“Anybody that’s watched him play, you never have a question about how hard he’s going to go,” Coombs said. “What a great thing for him, right? So when I walk into my meeting room and I say, ‘OK, who’s the hardest playing guy in this room?’ Day 1, that’s what I asked my guys in my unit, and they all said Armani.”
The aid and backslapping is reciprocated throughout the entire secondary. The unit acts as a ball and socket joint. If one piece is out of sync, the whole projects goes kaput. So you’ll not only witness Reeves play hard – he’ll also lend a helping hand to those competing against him.
In two years at Ohio State, Reeves viewed upperclassmen leading and offering pointers to inexperienced youth. One year ago, the scene was Roby chatting with Reeves on the practice field explaining what he’d face in a game.
“We’re all working really hard, and when you have confidence in each other that just makes a defense that much better,” Reeves said.
Better is the operative word. It’s been tossed around the defense, and pass defense in particular, this spring. With Meyer all but pointing the finger at the defense last season, describing them as the deficiency on an otherwise flawless team, the players on that side of the ball are keen on changing opinions to the positive column.
It’s inspired motivation, according to Reeves. They remember what took place. After all, they lived the nightmare. But there’s a new coach, new philosophy and new bodies.
“Obviously everybody knows the pass defense last year had its ups and downs,” Reeves said. “This year we’ve got a fresh start and we’re going to come out hungry. The only thing that can do is motivate you to play better than you did last year.
“We’ll get there. It’s a process.”