2015 Season Preview: Buckeye Defensive Backfield Led by Pair of Returning Safeties

By Michael Citro on August 25, 2015 at 1:05 pm
Vonn Bell and Cam Burrows
Ohio State Football 2015 Season Preview

The 2014 Buckeye secondary led one of the nation’s top ball-hawking defenses, which finished fourth in the country with 25 interceptions. Of those, 19 were taken away by members of the defensive backfield, led by a pair of returning safeties in juniors Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell.

Ohio State intercepted at least one pass in 12 of its 15 games last year, and one of the three contests without a pick came against run-happy Navy—which only attempted four passes, completing just two for 20 yards. Seven of the Buckeyes’ 25 picks came in the three postseason games, as the defense turned up the heat on Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon.

That secondary unit should be strong once again, despite the loss of All-Big Ten cornerback Doran Grant—the lone graduate from Ohio State’s four starting defensive backs from last year’s championship team. But Grant’s loss is an important one and pushes redshirt sophomore cornerback Eli Apple into a more important role in 2015. Grant intercepted five passes in 2014, including two in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin. The secondary also took a hit with off-season losses of Armani Reeves and Ron Tanner to medical hardships, but there is still a ton of talent in the Buckeye defensive backfield, although much of it is young and untested.

Let’s start with the safeties. Powell is a 6-foot-3, 210-pound redshirt junior from Bedford, OH, who came in with little fanfare as a consensus three-star recruit, only to become a starting strong safety last year. A Buckeye through and through, Powell was the first player to commit to Ohio State following Jim Tressel’s resignation in 2011. His knack for making big plays started in the 2013 Michigan game, when he intercepted a two-point conversion attempt to seal a Buckeye victory.

Ohio State defensive backs
Player No HT WT YR Hometown (High School)
ELI APPLE 13 6-1 200 SO Vorhees, NJ (Eastern)
DAMON ARNETTE 17 6-0 191 FR Ft. Lauderdale, FL (St Thomas Aquinas)
VONN BELL 11 5-11 205 JR Rossville, GA (Ridgeland)
CAM BURROWS 16 5-10 197 SR Trotwood, OH (Trotwood Madison)
MICHAEL CIBENE 28 6-0 185 JR Ft. Lauderdale, FL (Pinecrest)
GAREON CONLEY 8 6-0 195 SO Massillon, OH (Washington)
TREVON FORTE 21 5-8 175 SO Youngstown, OH (Cardinal Mooney)
KHALEED FRANKLIN 20 6-1 215 JR Columbus, OH (Beechcroft)
ERIC GLOVER-WILLIAMS 19 5-9 175 FR Canton, OH (McKinley)
ELIJAAH GOINS 32 6-1 195 JR Concord, NC (Cox Mill)
CIN'QUAN HANEY 46 6-1 200 JR Dayton, OH (Chaminade-Julianne)
MALIK HOOKER 24 6-2 205 FR New Castle, PA (New Castle)
CAMERON HOWARD 15 6-1 203 JR Columbus, OH (Gahanna)
LOGAN KELLEHER 25 5-10 195 SO Cincinnati, OH (Moeller)
MARSHON LATTIMORE 2 6-0 195 FR Cleveland, OH (Glenville)
MICHAEL LAWLESS 26 6-2 210 JR Dover, OH (Tuscarawas Central Cath.)
MIKE MADUKO 29 5-8 188 SO Naperville, IL (Montini Catholic)
JOSHUA NORWOOD 14 5-10 175 FR Valdosta, GA (Valdosta)
TYVIS POWELL 23 6-3 210 JR Bedford, OH (Bedford)
ERICK SMITH 1 6-0 202 SO Cleveland, OH (Glenville)
DENZEL WARD 12 5-11 180 FR Macedonia, OH (Nordonia)
DAMON WEBB 7 5-11 193 SO Detroit, MI (Cass Tech)

That trend continued in 2014, as Powell finished fourth on the team with 76 tackles (45 solo), with four interceptions, eight passes defensed, a forced fumble, a quarterback hurry and two tackles for loss. He was third on the team in interceptions and tied for seventh in the Big Ten. Powell intercepted the final pass from Alabama quarterback Blake Sims in the Sugar Bowl to clinch Ohio State’s trip to the national championship game against Oregon. He displayed better tackling in 2014 and developed as a defender against the pass. The Buckeyes could use similar development in Powell’s third year on the field.

Opposite Powell is junior free safety Vonn Bell, who has been making big plays since his first start in the 2014 Orange Bowl, when he intercepted Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd in the end zone. As a true sophomore, Bell turned into one of the nation’s best college safeties last year. He was the Big Ten’s co-leader and tied for ninth nationally in interceptions (6) and finished second among Ohio State tacklers with 92 (57 solo)—the most tackles by a Buckeye safety since 2002. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Rossville, GA, native added two TFLs, a sack and a fumble recovery in his first season as a starter. Bell was great on the big stage, with interceptions against both Wisconsin and Alabama in the postseason. 

Having one of the nation’s best safety tandems returning can only help Ohio State’s cause in 2015, and there is talent waiting on the bench, as well. Erick Smith, a 6-foot, 202-pound sophomore out of Cleveland Glenville is pushing the starters for playing time. He played 13 games as a true freshman and finished with 13 tackles (10 solo) and a fumble recovery. He also intercepted a pass against Kent State.

Cam Burrows, who is recovering from an injury this past spring, is Ohio State’s starting nickel, but the Buckeyes don’t use that spot as often with Darron Lee on the field. Burrows is also a backup safety and was Bell’s No. 2 last season. The 6-foot, 208-pound junior out of Trotwood (OH) Madison has seen the field each of the past two seasons. He played in 14 games in 2014, making 17 tackles (10 solo) with two pass breakups. Another safety who could push for playing is 6-foot-2, 205-pound redshirt freshman Malik Hooker out of New Castle, PA.

Apple returns at one starting corner spot after a productive redshirt freshman season. The No. 1 prospect out of New Jersey in 2013, Apple made 53 tackles (33 solo) in his first year as a starter, picking off three passes and defending 13 others—finishing second on the team to Doran Grant. Showing prowess against the run, the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder made 5.5 tackles for loss last season—totaling more than the other three starting secondary players combined. He put the finishing touches on Ohio State’s 2014 title by picking off Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota of Oregon on the final play of the CFP championship.

The likely new starter opposite Apple will be sophomore Gareon Conley, a 6-foot, 195-pound Massillon, OH, product. Conley, who Urban Meyer called one of the five most improved players in fall camp, played in all 15 games last season, finishing with 16 tackles (12 solo) and two pass breakups. He’ll get pressure from backup nickel Damon Webb, a 5-foot-11, 193-pound sophomore from Detroit’s Cass Tech. Webb made three tackles in nine appearances last year.

Other players vying for playing time at corner include redshirt freshman Marshon Lattimore from Cleveland Glenville. Lattimore is an extremely talented prospect, and should see the field in 2015, although he’s recently been sidelined by a hamstring setback.

Incoming freshmen Eric Glover-Williams (Canton McKinley), Denzel Ward (Macedonia, OH), and Joshua Norwood (Valdosta, GA) will try to make their presence felt in the two-deep at corner as well, while Damon Arnette (Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas) recovers from an apparently injury—he was on crutches when he checked into the team hotel a few weeks ago. Glover-Williams, the first to commit to the 2015 class, is a particularly intriguing prospect. He’s an athletic consensus four-star prospect at cornerback and on offense he finished his high school career as Canton McKinley’s third all-time leading rusher.

Walk-on depth players in the defensive backfield include Logan Kelleher, Elijaah Goins, Trevon Forte, Cameron Howard, Mike Maduko, Cin’Quan Haney, Michael Cibene, Khaleed Franklin, and Michael Lawless.

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