Revert back 12 months ago and you would see Doran Grant readying for his first season as a starter. Flip forward to 2014 and Grant is a senior, the veteran in the Ohio State secondary and one of the defensive leaders.
My, how quickly things change.
With last season’s dismal finish in a far off place, the Buckeyes have turned the page. There are two new defensive coaches – Larry Johnson and Chris Ash – and an entirely new philosophy for cornerbacks and the secondary as a whole. In 15 practices, Ohio State has already cleared its psyche. There’s confidence and poise in areas that were dominated by self-doubt last season.
Grant is the most recognizable figure in the secondary aside from Ash. He’s the second-leading returning tackler and most active cornerback. Grant tallied 58 tackles, two tackles for loss, three interceptions, 10 pass breakups, a forced fumble and a blocked kick.
The spring of 2014 acted as a get familiar session with the new coverages. But Grant also asserted himself as the top player in the defensive backfield and a vocal leader. Oh, and he won a race, earning fastest Buckeye honors.
“I have high confidence in my room,” Grant said. “I love what we’re doing. As a group, we’re getting tighter and tighter. That’s what I’m enjoying the most, especially seeing the guys getting better.”
The youth is undeniable, according to Grant. It doesn’t have to be a negative, though. He admitted there were shaky performances in his first career starts. But the talent encompassing the secondary trumps any lingering inexperience. Armani Reeves, Gareon Conley and Eli Apple emerged as skilled corners opposite Grant, and Vonn Bell, Tyvis Powell and Cam Burrows are gifted safeties.
“As a unit, everybody just bought into the coaches message of 4-6, A-B, just going hard,” Grant said. “Everybody did that, especially on the back end. We're going to take that into the summer.”
A more favorable style brings happy returns largely for less play calls. It wasn’t uncommon for players to become overwhelmed last season due to the amount of information that required processing in such short timeframes. The only reason Grant would be overworked in 2014 is because of added responsibilities.
Carrying the veteran tag comes with a certain obligation. Cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs saw Grant’s leadership skills firsthand throughout the spring. On any day, the meeting room quickly fills with Coombs’ booming voice. But it’s not the only sound. Tutoring the underclassmen became a theme for both Coombs and Grant.
Plenty will be new for Grant, too. He takes over the boundary corner position, which sets up a weekly showdown against the opposition’s top receiver. Grant will become more involved in stopping the run game and breaking down the offense.
“In our defense and our scheme, when you move over to that boundary corner, the responsibility changes,” Coombs said. “It increases, so you’ve got to take on a different demeanor in every thing that you do. Your style of play has to change, your responsibilities change, and that carries over into the weight room and film study and those types of things. To me, that’s where his focus has been in this offseason.”
When grading 2013, Coombs terms Grant “better than average.” And when comparing it to the present-day, Coombs believes the strides Grant’s made put him in the top percentile of Buckeye defenders.
“His improvement this year has been dramatic. I’m excited to see him play,” Coombs said. “He is a young man with incredible athletic ability. His combine-type numbers are going to match those of many of the great corners in the country today and those that have played here.”
When a projected first-round draft pick is missing off this year’s team, Coombs’ review of Grant paints a much sunnier picture than existed in the days after Bradley Roby’s decision. Grant acknowledged mistakes can be corrected by concentrating on fundamentals and other small techniques.
But the defensive barometer is pushing strongly to optimism. The mood is jovial, the players are talented and the coaches see waves of progression. As recently as four months ago, concerns were mounting.
“I feel like we have a lot of momentum heading into the summer and training camp,” Grant said. “It feels good, but we’ve got to finish it in the fall and take care of it. We were 24-0, then we lost two games, and I feel like we have something to prove. That’s what we did this spring. And that’s what we’re going to do this fall.”