Replacing Malik Hooker was no enviable task.
Although 18 trees in the Buckeye All-American grove feature the names of former defensive backs, few can claim to have made an impact quite like Hooker did last fall. Though he only started for one season in Columbus, Hooker allowed new coordinator Greg Schiano to transform the Ohio State defense from a structured, yet sometimes rigid, quarters defense into an aggressive man-to-man system, knowing one of the nation's best athletes was lurking deep in the secondary.
After Hooker departed for the NFL last spring, it wasn't entirely clear who would replace him, however. Senior Erick Smith seemed the logical choice, given his pedigree from Glenville High School and time spent in the program. But a sophomore from New Jersey that, like Hooker, had done a little bit of everything during his prep football days, stole Smith's assumed starting free safety job last August.
Jordan Fuller came to Ohio State with his ultimate position unclear, but plenty of potential. As a senior, he led Old Tappan to a state title while rushing for 747 yards and 10 touchdowns, hauling in 33 receptions for 886 yards and five touchdowns, making 44 tackles and reeling in six interceptions on defense, and even throwing for 135 passing yards.
But as of this writing, it's quite likely that most Buckeye fans think of him as 'the guy who tripped Spielman's nephew and saved a touchdown.' They aren't necessarily wrong about that, given the way the Huskers' slot receiver was the lone bright spot in an otherwise dismal night for the Huskers.
However, to think of Fuller's performance in Lincoln last Saturday night only through that lens would be unfair to the excellent performance he put on throughout the evening; one that required him to follow in Hooker's footsteps and become the Swiss Army knife of Schiano's secondary. Though Hooker made his name as a ball-hawking centerfielder, picking off deep balls and drawing comparisons to Earl Thomas, he was asked to do quite a bit more last fall.
Once teams could expect the Buckeyes to line up in Schiano's 'Cover-1' with everyone but the free safety in man-to-man coverage, opponents began isolating their best players on fellow safety Damon Webb, who struggled to live up to the high standards of surrounding cover-corners like Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley, and Denzel Ward. Hooker, then, was thrust into the role of slot-corner against four-receiver looks, while Webb retreated to patrol the deep middle.
This fall, Ohio State's defensive backs continue to often play the same coverage scheme, especially on passing downs, with Ward, Damon Arnette and Kendall Sheffield manning the three cornerbacks spots. But with Arnette lost for the first half in Lincoln due to his targeting penalty against Maryland the week prior, Schiano didn't look to the bench for a replacement. Instead, he simply bumped Fuller into the starting slot-corner position while Smith came at free safety.
While Nebraska slot receiver J.D. Spielman had a big night, nearly all of his yards came in the second half once Arnette returned and the game was already in hand. Fuller only gave up one reception to Spielman while in coverage (which resulted in the shoestring tackle) and was nowhere near the play when Spielman took off for a 77-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
In his role covering the slot receiver, Fuller was excellent, showing quick hips, good ball skills, and answering critics who didn't think he was capable of playing such a role during his recruitment two years ago.
But although Schiano deserves credit for developing a raw player so quickly (remember, Hooker spent two years on the bench learning before he saw regular playing time), he also made sure Fuller wouldn't be left out on an island for too long. The OSU defensive coordinator sent an array of blitz packages at quarterback Tanner Lee, including this 'Green Dog' package many NFL teams may remember:
Fuller doesn't just deserve praise for his coverage skills, however, as he was excellent in run support and led the team with five solo tackles on the evening.
Given the similarities between Nebraska's offensive philosophies and those of the Wisconsin Badgers, it wasn't a surprise to see the Huskers attempt a Jet-sweep early in the game, given how the Buckeyes struggled to stop it last year in Madison. But not only were Schiano's troops prepared, Fuller was fundamentally sound in his technique, a trait we'd see throughout the evening.
Not only does the entire secondary rotate over to account for the Jet motion in plenty of time, Fuller stays in control as he closes on the ball, recognizing he's the 'contain' player and is responsible for keeping the runner from getting outside.
As he approaches the play, he doesn't just launch himself for a big hit, but plays 'outside-in,' meaning his outside shoulder is always ahead of the runner and forcing a cutback into the waiting arms of his teammates.
Fuller's mastery of such a fundamental, yet important, technique allowed Schiano and the Buckeye front seven to go after the Husker running game, limiting them to only 44 yards on the ground all night. One way they did so was by placing an outside linebacker up on the line of scrimmage when the tight end was not split out, and then blitzing him through the C-gap while the rest of the line slanted away from the running back's side.
Clearly, the Ohio State defensive staff picked up on the Huskers' tendency to run away from the strength in the shotgun and looked to meet the runner at the point of attack. However, the slant would've allowed for a big cutback lane to the opposite side had Fuller not been there. Once again, the free safety recognized his responsibility as the 'contain' player and forced the runner back inside as he stopped him for a short gain.
For as good as Hooker was, even he struggled at times to maintain proper leverage when playing his run fits, a trait NFL scouts picked up on. But though Fuller's efforts in the run game were most noticeable in the win over Nebraska, they're indicative of his play throughout the year thus far, as he leads the team with 26 solo tackles midway through the season.
After the big win in Lincoln, Fuller's play was rewarded by allowing the media to speak directly to him postgame. But while he seemed more comfortable taking on a ballcarrier than a horde of microphones, the Jerseyite's humility showed through.
"My confidence level is high right now," Fuller said. "I know I can excel. There are a lot of things I got to get better at the same time."
But while Fuller's focus is on continual improvement, given his play against the Huskers, the gardeners in the grove may want to start scouting a spot for DB tree #19.