The idea of the bullet has always sounded fun.
Oh, so it’s a hybrid linebacker-safety who’s big enough to play at the line of scrimmage yet also fast enough to run around on the back end of Ohio State’s defense in pass coverage? It’s somebody who lines up all over the place, causing offensive coordinators fits given their versatility and combination of size and speed? And the position’s name means the Silver Bullets will have an actual bullet among the 11 guys on the field? Cool!
But the theory of the bullet and the conversations about the bullet have far outpaced the bullet’s existence on the field and usefulness to the Buckeyes’ defense.
The only guy who has ever played meaningful snaps at the position in the two years since former defensive coordinator Greg Mattison introduced it in 2019 is Brendon White. He transferred before that season ended because he – the sole bullet on the roster with a position seemingly created out of thin air specifically for him – didn’t have a consistent role. Pete Werner, the second-year starting strongside linebacker, essentially took over all bullet duties despite not having the title bestowed upon him. In 2020, Ohio State’s players and coaches didn’t speak about the bullet all year and they didn’t utilize it on the field either. It simply disappeared from the discourse.
But, mercifully, it has once again materialized. Head coach Ryan Day said “it’s still there” when asked about whether the bullet would factor into the defense’s 2021 plans.
“Really what it is is it's a hybrid,” Day said. “Really last year it was hard to take those linebackers off the field. We had Baron Browning, Justin Hilliard, Tuf (Borland) and Pete (Werner). We felt that was a strength of our defense were those guys. Boy, they made a lot of plays. But as we head into this offseason, looking at our personnel and who we have and then some of the offenses we're going to face and how we need to adapt, we're going to continue to talk about that and figure out how the bullet plays into this season.”
Here we are again. The bullet, at least for now, is back.
The two overriding questions are obvious: 1) How often will Ohio State actually deploy it? and 2) Who’s lining up at the spot?
The first answer won’t be clear until the fall rolls around. Heck, it doesn’t even sound like Day knows for sure as spring camp gets underway.
“Finding that mix of the nickel/safety/strong safety/free safety – what is that all going to look like?” Day said. “I think that's something that we're excited to find out.”
Ohio State has a bevy of options – Josh Proctor, Lathan Ransom, Marcus Williamson, Ronnie Hickman, Craig Young, Kourt Williams and Bryson Shaw among them – at those various spots that Day named. How the defensive coaching staff fits them together will go a long way to figuring out how this defense performs come the fall.
The second question about the bullet – figuring out the personnel – should have some sort of an answer by the end of spring.
The Buckeyes typically allow media members into the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for the first spring practice, along with one or two others in March and April. But due to the coronavirus, reporters haven’t yet been able to see practices to get a handle on how the bullet might be used and who’s lining up there.
Coaches have mentioned Proctor and Shaw will be free safeties, and Williamson and Ransom will see time at cover safety which lines up in the slot. Will Young, Williams and Hickman see time at the bullet? It’s possible. Specifically, Day mentioned Young – a third-year junior who played linebacker as a freshman and sophomore – has worked in practice at both bullet and linebacker this offseason, and he said Williams has a “good place” at safety, though he didn’t specify exactly which safety position he’ll play.
Since four senior linebackers are gone, there would seem to be an opening for Ohio State to actually employ the bullet in a larger-than-ever-before capacity this season. But that was the prevailing thought two years ago, too, and the expected outcome of White getting on the field for a bunch of snaps didn’t occur.
It's 2019 all over again. Once more, there's a bunch of uncertainty surrounding the bullet and Day says it’ll be part of the plan this fall. We’ll see in six months whether the result will be any different.