Buckeyes Have Plenty of Options at Nickel

By Kyle Rowland on July 22, 2014 at 2:45p
Armani Reeves

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. 



NYC Buckeye's picture

The safety position seems solid, with Burrows to back up Bell and Powell, but the corners seem thin... I'm sure the freshman are good, but makes me nervous to see a true freshman inserted into a corner position..  After watching the spring game, for some reason I was left with the impression Apple could use another year before stepping into a starting role, especially the nickel..

Wesleyburgess1's picture

Apple and Conley will both be RS Freshman this coming season.I have reservations about Smith stepping into starting NB spot too. I felt that Apple was the best DB on the field during the spring game. I was there and watched him allot and he seems to have a nose for the ball when it's in the air. Also I was looking at the new rostor Osu released and noticed that Christopher Worley was listed as a safety while Darren Lee was listed at LB. All spring they said both were Walkout Linebackers. Wonder why CW is listed @ SAF?

+3 HS
NYC Buckeye's picture

Yea my bad, I didn't mean to reference Apple as a true freshman, I was just assuming he would get time at nickel if reeves and grant are the starting CBs..  He did seem to have a knack for the ball, I think it's his size that I'm down on, he looked small to me, and the nickel back needs to be able make tackles on running plays out of spread offenses...

no idea on Worley...

+1 HS
Jbucks's picture

i welcome the safety/nickel trio of Bell Burrows and Smith, Smith seems to have that ball hawking ability, i cant speak for Burrows speed but his size is monsterous and Bell seems to be on track for the next Big thing. He played great in that bowl game given the circumstances. also dont sleep on Webb and Latimore making a splash early on that depth chart.

Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it-John 1:5 SEC meet Ohio State, Ohio State meet SEC

+1 HS
sivaDavis's picture

Tyvis Powell?

"I've had smarter people around me all my life, but I haven't run into one yet that can outwork me. And if they can't outwork you, then smarts aren't going to do them much good." - Woody Hayes

+3 HS
IGotAWoody's picture

I believe he's talking about the competition for the OTHER safety spot, opposite Powell, and who will end up as the 5th defensive back.

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

SilverBullet-98's picture


"The Past Builds the Future"

Barnsey69's picture

I know some of those safeties  and DB's at Wisconsin under Ash could flat out lay the wood. Hoping some of that was scheme combined with skill.

Smith is going to be a great one.

Thank the Maker that I was born in Ohio, cradle of coaches, US Presidents, confederate-stomping Generals, and home of The Ohio State University Football Buckeyes- 2014 UNDISPUTED National Champions!

+4 HS
Crimson's picture

I'm not sure that Reeves locking up nickle means that the other corner will be Apple/Conley.  He was previously listed as the starter at both positions, with another corner coming in when he's at nickle.

ab42beerman's picture

I think using the word overrated is way too kind for those no-talent ass clowns from Canada FWIW.

+2 HS
Balkestud's picture

It really is a shame that Vonn was hurt this spring as I believe he is the most athletic safety we have had here for a very long time ( as the Clemson interception will attest to). Hopefully he fully heals up and hits the ground running this fall because we need him back there to be one of our defensive playmakers. I know it is not a popular belief but I thank Armani wins the other CB job due to his physical nature being suited for our change in philosophy. Cam will start the season as the nickel, his skillset is perfect for the role due to his size,speed and coverage skills. It is really hard not to get to excited about our secondary cause, honestly, when was the last time we had this much talent and explosiveness in our backups? With our schedule this year there is no reason why we shouldn't be a top 20 D, unless we score to fast and often

It gets kind of rough in the back of my limousine,



+1 HS
Crimson's picture

I love Cam, and I hope he gets on the field due to his ability, but if he's the starting nickle, I doubt he'll be on the field much.  Lee/Worley probably have that "spot" locked up.

Ohio State has vowed to play more base defense this season, which diminishes the need for nickel formations.

-1 HS
PasadenaBuckeye626's picture

My man, Tyvis Powell

Go Bucks!

+10 HS
TheNorthernBuckeye's picture

I really like Webb at the nickel and Smith in the backend.  I've got my hopes that they can play some substantial minuets this fall. 

Stay the course 

chirobuck's picture

To be honest I dont like webb at the nickle at all, I dont think his game is suited for it, he will be the next great osu shut down corner on the outside but there is a reason the nickle guys always gets moved to saftey, o johnson, Hines, Bryant, Powell.....those are the kinda guys they like there, I see webb as more of a roby


^ best post ever ^

+1 HS
toby's picture

I like Webb in the rotation at the nickle and also to possibly back up Grant at the boundary corner.

+1 HS
Oakland Buckeye's picture

At least our Nickleback wont suck......

+5 HS
buckeyestu's picture

Imo the band is not over rated.

-1 HS
TraptnMI's picture

The band is alot like the Foo Fighters. I don't believe either has ever put out a crappy song

" It's real good whatcha done Anthony, real good ! "

Otown Buckeye's picture

I'll never claim to be an authority on Rock and Roll, but putting Foo Fighters and Nickelback in the same sentence is like putting "teeth" and "penis" in the same sentence.  You just don't do it man.

"because we couldn't go for three"

+3 HS
gm3jones's picture

I just cringed at that notion. Ouch! Lmao

There is nothing more remarkable as learning to think better.

chirobuck's picture

I will be shocked if its not bell at the saftey and burrows playing the nickel, which I think he will be great at, and maybe smith coming in for dime packages


^ best post ever ^

DC-town's picture

Talent and options...great to be a fan of the osu.  Keep in mind they're all young and will make some mistakes, but unlike last year they should look better as the season progresses

'Piss excellence' -RB

+1 HS
Shangheyed's picture

A Year away from being one of the best units on the field.

+1 HS
CGroverL's picture

I wish that this "nickel" and a spot on the DL were like Heacock's defenses. The Bucks had a DB that could hit like a LB while also having a faster player on the DL to cause disruption by rushing the QB and also sometimes dropping into coverage. Cam Heyward played it great when he got his chance to lead the DL. Those positions were called the "Star" and the "Leo". We seem to have a great Leo that fits the mold in Spence....I just miss the good old days when our Leo (or Viper that lines up as the 7) and our Star were feared players. It seems that the defense has been a bit weaker since the difference of the Star and Leo positions. Maybe there has been no "star" or "Leo" because of the lack of personnel to play the spots...that definitely IS NOT the case now. Plus, with the addition of Chris Ash, we may have lost the Star forever....unless the nickel is the Star and Spence with his speed, and long arms (he is a prototypical Leo) is the Leo. The defense is just different now and we all loved the Buckeye defenses under Heacock. Even Tressel said,"Jim Heacock is the reason why this team is playing for the national title. His defense carries the team".

Remember those days? They could return as I believe this could be one of the best defenses that Ohio State has had in a long time and the Buckeye offense is twice what the Buckeye offenses were in the days of Tressel, Heacock, and Fickell who learned Heacock's defenses for years before Heacock left. I'm Fick's biggest fan. I've never blamed him...but I'm going to start if the defense is not as good as they can be here in 2014.

"I hope they're last in everything". One of Meyer's comments when speaking of TTUN after being hired at Ohio State.



AlwayzABuckeye614's picture

Webb needs to STAY at corner, like said, that guy can be a lock down corner. 

+1 HS
SilverBullet-98's picture

Maybe we should run a 3-3-5 defense with the depth we have, lol?

It's a really nice problem, we are so loaded on defense!!!

"The Past Builds the Future"

+1 HS
NuttyBuckeye's picture

Why not go a 4-1-6?  Use two nickels or extra safeties to replace a LB or two.  If we have the talent and hitters in the secondary (and it sure sounds like we do), I say get them on the field all together against the spread.

What's round on the ends and high in the middle? Tell me if you know!

Crimson's picture

If we have a unit that didn't suck last year, it was the DL.  Why would be get rid of one to add someone from another group who hasn't shown they are better?  Same kind of goes for dropping a LB, although it's more of an even trade there.

+1 HS
NuttyBuckeye's picture

Crimson, I was thinking that a few of our safeties almost have LB size, but are a step faster.  If the best 11 happen to be 6 DBs, play them all at the same time, right?

What's round on the ends and high in the middle? Tell me if you know!

Crimson's picture

Yeah, I'm not sure 4-1-6 is a terrible idea (3-x-x worries me).  One of Perry, Grant/McMillan, and Lee/Worley better deserve to be on the field.  Powell, Bell, Burrows, and Apple/Conley/Reeves (plus true freshmen) aren't proven commodities either, although I like the potential of a lot of them.  Lee/Worley is probably the first one off for a 4-2-5, and I'd love to see Burrows step in, but I'm not sure who's better right now.

NuttyBuckeye's picture

I totally agree with your reply.  I don't want to see us drop to 3 linemen and basically concede the pass rush to play pass defense.  I am sure we would still see pressure from the 3 linemen, but put 4 on the field to minimize the double-teams, and limit the QB's time to throw.

What's round on the ends and high in the middle? Tell me if you know!