Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer was pleased with the effort that his shorthanded defense put forth Saturday in the Buckeyes’ 40-20 win against Buffalo, but he knows the unit still has some growing up to do.
The Buckeyes were without redshirt-junior starting cornerback and preseason All-American Bradley Roby, who was suspended because of his involvement in an incident at a Bloomington, Ind., bar in July.Roby is back this week, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he will be inserted into the starting defensive lineup, Meyer said.
“He will not be named starter,” Meyer said. “We’ll probably see (sophomore cornerback) Armani (Reeves) or Roby will start, depends on how they practice.”
Meyer also noted Roby is someone he has “a lot of respect for” because while he could have left OSU after last season for the NFL,Roby made the decision to come back and finish his Buckeye career with the group of players he came in with. Robywent through “a little bit of a funk of buyer’s remorse,” Meyer said, after hearing people say he could have been drafted high. Meyer called his return this season “very admirable.”
Roby was not the only returning defensive starter who did not play against Buffalo, as a lower leg injury made redshirt-senior safety and starter C.J. Barnett a game time decision, ultimately keeping him out. A nagging leg cramp led to junior linebacker Ryan Shazier being carted to the locker room in the second quarter, leaving senior safety Christian Bryant as the lone returning starter on the field.
The unit’s lack of experience, coupled with both Shazier’s and Barnett’s absences showed, as Buffalo was able to capitalize on a pair of Buckeye turnovers to get within 10 points twice, in both the second and third quarters.
OSU eventually put the Bulls away, with the help of redshirt-senior running back Jordan Hall’s 159 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, but the defense’s inconsistency kept the game close until late in the third quarter.
New starters Reeves and junior cornerback Doran Grant had ups and downs of their own, as they matched up with star Buffalo receiver Alex Neutz. Neutz was Bulls quarterback Joe Licata’s favorite target Saturday and ended two receiving yards shy of 100, scoring a touchdown when he leaped over Reeves in the third quarter.
Meyer said he was pleased with Reeves’ effort, but is looking forward to getting Roby back on the field this weekend against San Diego State. According to Meyer, Roby’s maturity has shown during fall camp and he has done everything that has been asked of him.
“I think he learned a really strong lesson and he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do,” Meyer said. “I’m anxious to get him back on the field.”
Bryant said the presence of Roby and Barnett on the field will certainly help the defensive backfield’s confidence.
“I think it will just bring more wisdom to the defense,” Bryant said. “We know the type of job that we have to accomplish each and every week, and with Roby and C.J. (Barnett) back I think it’s going to boost the defense’s confidence a little bit more. I know I will feel a lot better with them back, too.”
Special teams coordinator and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said even though Roby is eligible to play this weekend, first team defensive reps during practice will be split evenly between him, Grant and Reeves.
“We’ll get a lot of work in and rotate those three guys, Doran, Armani (Reeves) and Bradley (Roby) with the first team,” Coombs said. “That’s what we always have done and have been pretty consistent with that throughout training camp.”
Even though Roby’s return to the lineup may diminish some of his playing time, Grant said his return, along with Barnett’s, will allow the defense to play more aggressively.
“With those two guys coming back, they know what to do when they come back and get out there on the field,” Grant said. “I think it’s going to take our aggression on the defensive side of the ball a little higher.”
Grant called Roby a “great leader” both on the field and in the film room, and he has never stopped being a leader even though he was suspended.
“Knowing he wasn’t going to play the first game, he was helping out myself, Armani Reeves and also the young guys — basically the whole defense,” Grant said. “He’s always there talking, giving his keys and clues on what we gotta look for coming up to the game.”
Roby’s return is not to overshadow the return of another key player, albeit on the other side of the ball, in redshirt-junior running back Rod Smith.
Meyer suspended Smith during camp for violating a team rule in “either January or February.” With fellow running back Carlos Hyde suspended for his involvement in an incident at a Columbus bar this summer, Smith was looked to be the starter until he was suspended.
Smith’s return could alter the role Hall plays in the offense. The Jeanette, Pa., native said he is unsure of where how he will be used Saturday.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Hall said.
Hall said he has no preference between playing H-back or running back, and wherever he is on the field, he just wants to help his team win. Having running back depth, though, is a good thing, he said.
“Coach Meyer knows that he has a bunch of people that can play running back or H-back, so I think it’s just going to be harder for a defense to prepare for that,” Hall said. “I’m just going to go at whatever position they put me at and try to make plays.”
Running backs coach Stan Drayton is the man slated with the responsibility of deciding who gets the touches during games, and with Smith returning this week and Hyde returning Sept. 21 against Florida A&M, selecting starters may be difficult. Drayton, though, said no matter who the returning player is, each guy must earn his way back.
“What they do is they have to come in and earn their position back,” Drayton said. “Nothing is given to these guys.”
Meyer and Drayton said every player has to show their worth on special teams before getting a chance to play elsewhere. Drayton said it is important to hold everyone to that standard.
“We have a philosophy that if you want to play your respective position, you have to provide some value to this team on special teams,” Drayton said. “So if Carlos Hyde gets reinstated, and he can add some value to our special teams, then great. Then we’ll sit there and we’ll take a good look at where he stands in that running back group.”
It will be interesting to see where and when Smith gets on the field Saturday against SDSU, but he will make an appearance as long as he has a good week of practice, Meyer said.
Kickoff against the Aztecs is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Ohio Stadium.