Something had to change.
After allowing an average of 268 yards per game through the air in 2013 — including getting torched for an average of 377.6 yards in its final three games of the season — the Ohio State pass defense needed a facelift.
Gone is former safeties coach Everett Withers, who is now the coach at James Madison University.
Gone are former starters Bradley Roby, Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett, as well as Corey “Pitt” Brown, who filled in after Bryant broke his ankle against Wisconsin Sept. 28.
Gone is the leadership the departed players provided.
Buckeye fans might be wondering who is left to pick up the pieces after such poor performances against what were arguably the three best passing attacks it faced last year.
Enter co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash, who in filling the vacancy left by Withers brings a change in mindset by placing an increased importance on playing press coverage and harnessing an influx of young talent ready to spread their wings. All in all, the OSU defensive backfield seems primed to forget the awful performances of last year.
“I do think we have tremendous players here,” Ash said Feb. 5 on National Signing Day. “Now, going into next year, some of it’s inexperienced talent but regardless, it’s talent and it’s going to be our job to teach them. But by the time we get through spring practice and training camp, there will be no inexperience anymore. We’ve got to be game-ready.”
The majority of that inexperienced talent was on display Saturday at OSU’s Spring Game, as young players like redshirt-freshmen Eli Apple and Gareon Conley and sophomore Cam Burrows got plenty of snaps.
OSU coach Urban Meyer kept multiple likely starters on both sides of the ball out of the annual scrimmage — which was won by Gray, 17-7 — for different reasons, whether because they were already hurt or he didn’t want to risk key guys getting injured this far ahead of OSU’s first game, scheduled for Aug. 30 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore against Navy.
One of those players was sophomore safety Vonn Bell, who made a splash in the 2014 Discover Orange Bowl with seven tackles and an acrobatic interception of Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd at the goal line. Meyer said Bell and Burrows are battling for a starting safety spot opposite redshirt-sophomore Tyvis Powell, while other spots in the defensive backfield are still up in the air.
“At corner, we’re not yet decided, (senior) Doran Grant had a great spring. Had a little slight concussion about a week ago, so we didn’t want to push it today,” Meyer said. “But he’s earned a spot, and the other spot is wide open.”
OSU cornerbacks coach and special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs said after spring practice April 3 the Buckeyes are looking to play more than just two cornerbacks this coming season, adding that junior Armani Reeves is likely to see a lot of playing time as the nickel cornerback. Don’t be surprised to see true freshmen cornerbacks Damon Webb and Marshon Lattimore get in the mix either once they arrive for practice this summer, Coombs said.
“I tell you what, those two freshmen coming in are going to have a chance to play,” Coombs said. “We’re going to play more than two corners that’s for sure.”
A player Meyer has mentioned specifically more than once to be “in the mix” for playing time this fall is Apple, a four-star recruit coming out of high school who enrolled early before last season. Apple struggled to stay healthy throughout his first year at OSU, though, leading to his redshirt year and his black stripe remaining on his practice helmet until Student Appreciation Day April 5, where he intercepted two passes.
Grant said April 3 Apple had been playing tough all spring long.
“Eli Apple is coming of himself. He’s playing very physical, like really bullying some of the No. 1 receivers,” Grant said. “So I’m like, ‘OK, I like this.’”
Apple impressed at the Spring Game, continuing to show he can play the tight coverage the defensive coaches — and Meyer — are looking for, breaking up two passes.
“He was making his plays, taking the coaching,” Grant said of Apple after the game. “He is growing up and getting the feel for it.”
Aside from players who Meyer has already named starters for 2014 and those who could still earn the starting spot opposite of Grant, one player who won’t be seen in the Scarlet and Gray any longer is redshirt-freshman Jayme Thompson. Meyer confirmed to the Columbus Dispatch Wednesday a report that Thompson had been granted a release from OSU that he requested and intends to transfer.
Coombs said the defensive backfield must be deeper than it was last year when the likes of Roby, Barnett and Bryant led the secondary because the change to press coverage demands it.
Losing a potential first-round pick like Roby and defensive stalwarts like Barnett and Bryant could make some coaches lose sleep at night.
“We may not have … I don’t know how many first-round draft picks (at corner) there are in this draft, (but) we’ll have them down the road,” Coombs said. “But I know this: we’re going to have 11 hats at the ball throwing a party when they get there, and that’s what’s really exciting.”