Eli Apple and Gareon Conley are roommates. They’ve developed into close friends in their first year at Ohio State, and if the spring was any indication, they’ll patrol the defensive backfield with one another come fall.
“It’s great because competition always brings the best out of everybody,” Apple said. “Me and Gareon are always pushing each other to get better every day. Whoever the best guy is needs to be ready. Everybody has to be ready.”
Few positions on the team received as much attention in the spring as the secondary. There’s a new safeties coach – someone with a track record at producing high-end pass defenses – a new philosophy, position battles and memories of last season. Those memories could be deemed nightmares.
Ohio State ranked 112th in pass defense and gave up country acres to opposing quarterbacks and wide receivers. Bradley Roby, Doran Grant and Co. were more than capable, but scheme issues appeared to be the Buckeyes’ undoing.
Enter Chris Ash. He did his finest work at Wisconsin, and earned unsolicited praise from Tom Herman prior to the 2013 season. Herman said Ash outcoached him in a game Ohio State won in overtime, preserving an undefeated season.
“He was very simple. He did not call one blitz on first or second down,” Herman said. “He called one front and one coverage. Within that front and coverage, he could adjust to any formation or motion we gave him. And he had his kids extremely well coached up on recognition of plays and alignments. You have to throw it over their heads, and our guys have to make plays if they are going to commit both safeties to the run the way that they did.”
The Buckeyes hope they hear more opposing offensive coordinators gripe about Ash’s preparedness and defensive sets. An aggressive style was evident early in the spring and the press coverage Ash instituted was what Meyer – and fans – were searching for, safeties and cornerbacks bumping receivers and being an annoyance.
The current state of college football is heavy on offense. Fans and TV executives want to see excitement, which translate into points. The sport’s identity has evolved into dual-threat quarterbacks who can dazzle. But Ohio State is still intent on letting its defense be the face of the program.
“It’s not going to matter if we don’t play with great effort,” Ash said. “It all starts with the effort and then once we get the effort where we want it to be, we’ll worry about the details of what we’re doing – our alignments, footwork, hands, eyes. Those things will come in time.”
An adjustment period will still exist in fall camp, though many kinks were unknotted in the spring. The biggest adaptation is a change in position names and responsibilities. It’s like wading through knee-high muck and coming to treasure as the murky water recedes. Ohio State is nearing that point.
Grant is the headliner in the secondary. But Apple and Conley aren’t far behind. The redshirt freshmen received sizable attention in March and April as their talent shined bright. The duo is potential shutdown corners, meshing well with Ash and Kerry Coombs’ instructions.
In an unexpected year away from game action, Apple admitted he matured mentally, an aspect that contributed to his falling behind and ultimately redshirting. But after a year of practice, observing and conversations with coaches, Apple believes he’s primed to deliver in 2014.
“Doran and Coach Coombs really helped me with my mental game,” Apple said. “Last year, I was thinking too much and just making too many mental mistakes. This year, I’m really focused on the mental side of the ball.”
Anxiety in the spring existed in the form of newness. Relearning fundamentals, schemes and a culture. Over time, players will memorize their role and retain all the nuances associated with it. Ash has reiterated the importance of playing with a high football IQ.
“The way you get great effort and minimize mental errors is simplicity. Be simple with your approach and do what you do extremely well, and then you can branch off from there,” he said. “We’ve got to be great teachers. We’re not going to be a defense that I call a ‘guru defense’ or a ‘junk defense.’ We’re going to be executors about what we’re doing. It’s going to be about the effort and the fundamentals and consistency.”
Consistency is what’s plagued the Buckeyes in recent years. There’s been little semblance of steadiness. Playing smart with dependability goes a long way toward winning. Ash hammered home the point of having to execute on a regular basis. If there’s a void, breakdowns occur which leads to opposing fans cheering in the northeast corner of Ohio Stadium.
Said Ash: “Really, it’s all about how hard we play and how consistent we are in doing it.”