Jordan Fuller wanted to leave a legacy at Ohio State. To set an example for the younger players at safety, such as sophomore Josh Proctor and redshirt freshman Marcus Hooker. And he wanted to make more plays and cause more turnovers in the secondary.
So far, at the midpoint of the regular season, he’s feeling good about his decision to stick around Columbus for his senior season.
“Mostly just the whole vibe as a team has been great,” Fuller said on Monday. “I've just been having so much fun playing football.”
He hasn't exactly made loads of those game-changing plays, the ones he said 10 months ago that he wasn’t making as a junior. But the Buckeyes haven't needed him to this year.
While last year, it felt like he had to make a drive-saving tackle multiple times each quarter, he probably feels like the right fielder in little league baseball who ends up sitting down in the outfield to play with the grass at the back end of this season’s Ohio State defense.
“They take a lot of pressure off me. I can feel a little bored at times,” Fuller said with a smile. “Just everybody's making plays in front of me. Everybody takes the stress off me, really.”
Last year, he had no reason to feel like that.
Fuller frequently found himself as the last resort to tackle somebody looking to break a chunk play and score a touchdown against the Buckeyes. Ohio State dealt with that issue right from the first week of the 2018 season, when Oregon State’s Artavis Pierce had touchdown runs of 80 and 78 yards and Trevon Bradford caught a 49-yard touchdown pass, and the issue continued to plague the team through the rest of the year.
By the end of the season, the Buckeyes ranked in the bottom 20 in the nation in most plays of at least 30, 40, 50 and 60 yards allowed. They ranked second-to-last in most plays of at least 70 yards given up, and they tied with Virginia Tech for allowing the most plays of at least 80 and 90 yards.
Suffice to say, the defense didn’t play remotely up to the level expected, especially given that it was littered with former four-star and five-star prospects, many of who returned to fill out the starting lineup on this season’s team.
“We came from last year with something to prove,” Jonathon Cooper said.
Consider it proved – at least thus far.
Through six games, the Buckeyes are tied for first in the nation with only four plays of 30 yards or more allowed. They’ve given up only 15 plays of 20 yards or more, which ranks as the fifth-fewest in the country. Only one play has gone for more than 50 yards, and it came on Adrian Martinez’s 56-yard run when the Buckeyes already held a 48-0 third-quarter lead against Nebraska.
“I think we've done a good job of teaching where everybody fits into the defense, and I think that that was some of the feedback that we've got is that guys understand where everybody is on the field,” Day said. “And so if you know where everybody is, when you go to track the ball, I think that's important. You can play with a little bit more confidence knowing maybe you're not on an island, you have guys that are coming with you, swarming to the ball, and I think that's helped.”
The constant swarm to the ball has been a viscerally different aspect of this year’s defense.
Last season, players at all three levels too often found themselves needing to make a solo tackle in order to prevent a chunk play or a touchdown. Even though the personnel remains largely the same, the players’ added experience and the new defensive coaching staff – Greg Mattison, Jeff Hafley, Al Washington and Matt Barnes to go along with Larry Johnson – have managed to turn a crippling weakness into a notable strength.
“Our tackling has gotten better,” Fuller said. “Our pursuit to the ball, so you don't feel like you're making a one-on-one tackle as much, I feel like. When you have other guys surrounding the ball, you feel like you can really just take your shot, really. And I think that's really helped us. Just having more eyes on the ball and getting to the ball carrier.”
Fuller might feel bored at times.
But that’s a heck of an improvement from last year when he was permanently at DEFCON 1.