Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer brought Chris Ash to Columbus to fill the glaring holes in a Buckeye secondary that ranked 112th nationally in passing yards allowed last season. When Ash’s first Silver Bullet defense takes the field Aug. 30, the secondary will have an entirely new look, but not because Ash necessarily wants it that way. He has no other choice.
OSU’s new co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach inherited a pass defense only returning one full-time starter in senior cornerback Doran Grant after losing standouts in cornerback Bradley Roby and safety Christian Bryant.
The secondary is inexperienced. Besides Grant, only three other defensive backs have started a game in their careers — sophomore safety Tyvis Powell (five), junior cornerback Armani Reeves (three) and sophomore safety Vonn Bell (one).
With so little experience and redshirt-freshmen Eli Apple, Gareon Conley, Jayme Thompson and Chris Worley all looking to play a role in the secondary next year, Ash said the depth chart is completely wide open at this point.
“Everybody’s going to be competing all the way through training camp for those spots, because nobody’s proven back there,” Ash said Thursday after OSU’s fourth practice of the spring.
Though he wants his players to be aggressive, Ash said he wants to see them consistently nail the basics.
“We’re going to be executors about what we do and it’s going to be about the effort, the fundamentals and consistency,” Ash said. “The way you get great effort and minimize mental errors is simplicity — be simple with your approach and do what you do extremely well and then you can branch off from there.”
At the safety position, Bell made his first career start in the 2014 Discover Orange Bowl and seemed to be a front-runner to fill that spot before injuring his MCL in the Buckeyes’ first practice. He had knee surgery in early March and is slated to miss the rest of spring practices and the Spring Game, but is expected back for May workouts.
Sophomore Cam Burrows, a backup cornerback last season before moving to safety this spring, is taking the reps Bell would have had during spring practices, Ash said.
“Cam Burrows has stepped in, he’s taken advantage of the opportunity and done a great job. Vonn will be healthy soon and we’re going to have a great competition for those safety positions,” Ash said.
Burrows said in his transition to safety, he still uses the same skills he used as a cornerback last year, only his approach to the play has changed.
“I’m still a DB, I can still move and my hips are still good,” Burrows said Thursday. “As a corner, you’ve got to get out and play the deep and react (to) the short but at safety, you’re already back there so you just got to slow it down.”
Bell and Burrows are expected to play alongside Powell, who also made the switch from cornerback to safety for the Orange Bowl. Ash said Powell possesses many aspects of a star safety.
“The obvious is he’s long, he’s tall, he can run, he’s got great ball skills, he’s a very smart player, he’s got really good football IQ,” Ash said. “Up to this point, Tyvis competes. He’s smart, and (he’s) got a little bit of everything.”
Ash said Burrows’ and Powell’s backgrounds at cornerback should prove beneficial for them in his style of defense.
“Anytime you can get big corners like that — they have good feet and hips and can run, that have some toughness — I mean, it’s outstanding. They’re the model of what we would like to recruit here,” Ash said.
If the unit wants to live up to the longtime tradition of hard-nosed Buckeye defenses, Powell said the secondary has to be far more aggressive.
“We’re basically just trying to get the identity of the Silver Bullets back, just flying around to the ball, hitting hard, running fast,” Powell said.
OSU is scheduled to take on Navy Aug. 30 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Kickoff is set for noon.