Speed doesn’t always equal talent – and Urban Meyer covets both. Before the notion of “SEC speed” even existed, Meyer wanted to load up on quick players. Ohio State’s most recent recruiting class served as another example of Meyer’s insatiable thirst for speed.
The Buckeyes weren’t devoid of speed in the secondary last season. But the talent and philosophy didn’t mesh, rendering any advantage irrelevant. With Everett Withers’ departure and Chris Ash’s arrival, however, plans have changed. An aggressive style was instituted and with it a meshing of speed and talent.
Those characteristics will be spotlighted at the underrated position of nickelback, which is also the name of an overrated band. In an instant last season – perhaps the most important moment – nickelback Tyvis Powell etched his name into Ohio State lore with a then-season saving interception. Speed and talent were on full display.
Powell had 48 tackles in 2013, but it was his interception of Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner on what could have been a game-winning two-point conversion that will be remembered. In 2014, Powell will shift over to strong safety, giving way to Cam Burrows, Armani Reeves, Eli Apple and whoever else might make a dent in fall camp.
The nickelback position took a hit in spring practice when safety Vonn Bell was lost to a knee injury. It thrust Burrows into the safety role, having a domino effect on nickel, where everyone shot up a rung. Bell and Burrows will compete for a starting safety job in August, with Bell entering camp as the odds-on-favorite.
Nickelback has become a position of importance for the Buckeyes – and most teams across the country. Along with quarterback and wide receiver, no position on the football field has been uplifted more by the rise of spread offenses. Constant passing, four and five wide receivers means the defense must answer with an equal amount of defensive backs.
Ohio State has vowed to play more base defense this season, which diminishes the need for nickel formations. Safeties-turned-linebackers Darron Lee and Chris Worley could help Ohio State’s cause in passing situations. But the oversized bodies can limit who they can cover.
Meyer’s motto has long been about putting the best 11 players on the field, and that doesn’t change when it comes to nickelback. If a talented cornerback or safety makes the most sense at nickel, that’s who will be called upon. Kerry Coombs spent a month this spring deciphering who can and cannot play the position, finding that the Buckeyes have a horde of candidates.
“There’s some guys,” he said. “Eli can play the nickel. If Vonn is at safety, then Cam Burrows can play nickel. So we've got some pieces there, and we've got some really good freshmen coming in that are going to have a chance to do that.”
At the top of that list is Erick Smith and Damon Webb. Meyer has already spent time gushing over Smith, and the true freshman made it clear earlier this summer that his goal is to find the field quickly and make sure coaches don’t forget his name.
“Erick Smith, he’s a guy I'm really excited to get here,” Meyer said. “He played corner in the [U.S. Army All-American Bowl], but we plan on putting him at safety. And, once again, immediately [on the depth chart].”
At the inaugural Ohio-Michigan Border Classic, Smith didn’t hide his disappointment after Ohio lost the game. He admitted he’ll file it away in the back of his mind and pull it out twice in the month of November. It’s all part of his intensely competitive nature.
“I want to make the best of my opportunities,” Smith said. “I’m not going to back down because I'm a freshman. Proving people wrong is used as motivation. I’m fearless. I've been playing football too long to be scared. I'm ready to step out there. I just have to remain patient. I love competition.”
Both Smith and Webb are cut from the same cloth. They’re football players to the core, eager to deliver a big hit while never shying away from the rigors of the sport. Glenville head coach Ted Ginn Sr. and Cass Tech head coach Thomas Wilcher each elevated their respective players’ status to the top when listing all the greats they’ve coached.
Supplanting Burrows, Reeves or Apple will prove difficult. The trio’s experienced and knows what the position entails. All three have size and strength to keep the upper hand against bigger receivers.
It’s possible that Reeves’s spring performance could have given him an advantage over the competition. It would also add clarity to the cornerback position, clearing the way for Gareon Conley and Apple to play opposite Doran Grant.
You won’t find Meyer, Coombs, Chris Ash or Luke Fickell complaining about a surplus of viable options. Nickelback is a position of value in today’s college football, with Powell essentially being a starter last season.
It may take three weeks of camp to get the specifics sorted out, but when the official depth chart is posted, the fifth defensive back will have speed and talent.