"Brendon White came in and did a hell of a job." - Urban Meyer following Ohio State's 36-31 victory over Nebraska.
An absent running game. The head coach's health. A bevy of big plays given up on defense. Oh, and the Zach Smith saga, too.
After starting safety Jordan Fuller was ejected for targeting in the second quarter of Ohio State's latest contest, it appeared as if Buckeye fans should prepare for yet another blow in what has become a dramatic season filled with unmet expectations. Though the two-win Cornhuskers would hang around thanks to a trio of OSU turnovers, leaving many of the 104,000 spectators with a foul taste in their mouths as they exited Ohio Stadium, there was at least one reason for those clad in scarlet and gray to smile.
As Fuller jogged off to the locker room early, White, a sophomore who grew up just a few miles north in nearby Powell, became the fourth member of the Ohio State secondary to audition for significant playing time at safety this fall. With the departure of senior Damon Webb following last season, Isaiah Pryor, Jashen Wint, and converted cornerback Shaun Wade had all been given the opportunity to show they deserved to line up opposite Fuller, each with mixed results.
But in almost three quarters of play, White shined for his hometown crowd, tallying 13 tackles, eight of which were of the solo variety and with two coming for a loss, leading the team in each category. The performance not only caught the attention of his teammates but that of Meyer as well.
"We were without three starters in the back end of our defense — you got Jordan Fuller, you got Jeff Okudah and Isaiah Pryor. They could not play," Meyer said in his postgame press conference. "And obviously, Brendon White came in and did a hell of a job. He had 13 tackles."
While he had been mentioned a few times in the spring and summer as a competitor for the safety spot opposite Fuller, White hadn't seen the field in a meaningful defensive series until Saturday. Like Wade, White had transitioned from another position, initially practicing at receiver last fall after starring as a quarterback, wideout, and defender at Olentangy Liberty High.
As a consensus four-star recruit and ranked among Rivals' top 100 in the class of 2017, White appeared in five games last season, primarily on special teams. That role continued this season and in the first half against the Huskers, at least until Fuller's ejection.
"He’s been working very hard in practice to earn the trust of the coaches to get on the field," Meyer added. "First thing, you gotta earn the trust to get on the special teams. And to see that he started and I kept hearing about it, earning the trust — he’s getting better, he’s getting better, he’s getting better, and then obviously he proved it today."
That stretch was a turning point in the game as the Buckeyes would go on to turn the ball over on three of their next four possessions, often giving the Huskers good field position as a result. But White quickly found his bearings.
“The first series was kind of nerve-wracking,” White said following the game. “First time being out there with the first team. Middle of the game. It’s kind of early because usually, I’m going in in the fourth quarter. So when that happened, after the first series went on and the second series happened, I got more comfortable with myself. Guys started believing in me, saying ‘You got this,’ and we got the W.”
White's presence proved critical in slowing down the Husker running game led by freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez. Running Scott Frost's system, which is similar to the one Ryan Day installed last year for J.T. Barrett and evolved from the coach's time working for Chip Kelly, Martinez executed a variety of option run concepts to pick up 107 yards on the ground. However, 53 of those yards came before White entered the game.
The Buckeyes had trouble not only bringing down the Huskers' young QB but also speedy wide receivers Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman, who turned a number of quick screens into big gains and showed an ability to make defenders like Wade miss.
Once White entered, however, that quickly began to change. From his position as the boundary safety, lining up to the side closest the sideline, he was often asked to drop into a deep, middle zone while the rest of the secondary attempted to blanket receivers in a Cover-1, man-coverage play-call. From this viewpoint, White instinctively diagnosed plays and closed on the ball quickly before wrapping up runners.
Of course, he showed this instinct on more than just broken plays. The Buckeye defense has struggled to fill basic run gaps properly this season, and while many parties are guilty of this charge, the other candidates at either safety spot have often struggled in this regard.
White, however, looked natural when required to fill an assigned run gap. As seen below, White is responsible for the C-gap in between the offense's right tackle and tight end, and though Dre'Mont Jones makes a great play to beat his blocker and re-route the running back, White quickly closes what appeared to be an open gap and forces a negative play.
Against the pass, White was equally as effective. As Meyer noted following the game, his defense had mixed in far more zone and off-man coverage concepts this week, lessening their reliance on the press-man tactics that have had mixed results this season without star corners like Denzel Ward or Marshon Lattimore outside.
When dropping into a curl/flat zone outside the hashes in a Cover-3 zone, White was comfortable sniffing out plays, like the same Tunnel Screen concept that had sprung for a big gain earlier in the game.
Of course, the Husker coaching staff recognized that a virtually untested defender had entered the game, and did their best to isolate him in coverage.
White, of course, doesn't possess the same coverage skills as a player like Wade, who was recruited originally as a cornerback. However, when the Huskers forced White to tail Morgan or Spielman in predictable man-coverage situations, he proved more than up to the task.
This versatility is crucial to either safety position, and something co-coordinator and safeties coach Alex Grinch openly covets. As he noted back in the spring,
"At both spots, you got to be able to physically hold up in coverage vs. a tight end – that might be a matchup from a physical standpoint that you might be minus to – and you got to make sure that you got the speed and the agility and coverage skills to cover a slot receiver, that might have the quick skill set as opposed to the size skill set. And oh, by the way, they got two backs in the backfield and a tight end, you better come up and support the run," Grinch said. "So it’s a heck of a job description. It’s just becoming that way as football becomes more of a spread-out game."
"Our ultimate goal is to put the best two guys out there, whether it’s to the field or the boundary spot, and then beyond that, it’s a wide open race. So all those guys, the message to them is compete to get in the depth [chart] and then ultimately, compete to be a one."
Thus far, Fuller has been the only Buckeye safety to show such versatility, having started games at both the field and boundary position in an effort to complement the skill sets of Wade, Pryor, and Wint. But after White's outstanding initial effort at the boundary spot, it wouldn't be surprising to see him starting there with Fuller in the field position when Ohio State's defense takes the field in Spartan Stadium this weekend.
White's 13-tackle performance was the most by an OSU defensive back since Malik Hooker tallied 14 from the same, boundary safety position against Northwestern in 2016. While White is by no means playing at the All-American level Hooked showcased back then, his instinctive tackling prowess may be a godsend for a unit that had been plagued by inconsistency in that department.
“Young guys have to step up and I knew I had to step up. I couldn’t let somebody else take that position,” White said. “I have prepared for this. You never know what’s going to happen in any game. You’re going to face adversity and we faced it the right way, in a positive manner. No one got worried and we just did our jobs and the rest took care of itself.”
But as if White's unexpected performance wasn't enough, it came on a day when the school announced a new fundraising initiative to find a cure for ALS with his family at the center of the campaign. Brendon's father, William, is a former Buckeye captain who went on to play 11 seasons as a safety in the NFL and seems to have made an even bigger impact off the field than on it, despite being diagnosed with the disease in 2016.
Today we're launching a campaign to support former #Buckeye captain William White and his fight against ALS. You'll see this video today in Ohio Stadium. Text KickALS to 41444 to support William's fund at Ohio State. You can also use this link: https://t.co/ZyvDPTxQjr pic.twitter.com/csxJ6PrHxi
— Jerod Smalley (@JerodNBC4) November 3, 2018
“My dad is one of my idols,” Brendon said. “Hopefully I made him proud today and hopefully we can go up from here. I didn’t want to tear up, but I got emotional about it. It was pretty cool to see that.”
While it remains to be seen if White's impressive performance against the Huskers was a flash in the pan or if he is truly the long-term answer the Buckeye defense has been searching for, it's clear that the sophomore safety will always remember what happened last Saturday in the Horseshoe.
“It’s a dream come true, actually,” he said. “After the game I started tearing up because I just couldn’t believe it. Growing up from Ohio, went to Olentangy Liberty, 15 minutes from here, and always going to the games as a high school kid, and then being able to play at your dream school is pretty cool.”