With the first game of the 2014 season only days away, the Buckeyes are just recovering from one of the biggest overhauls of the offseason.
Not only have they lost senior quarterback Braxton Miller for the year because of a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, but they’ve also seen a turnover at two defensive coaching positions — former co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers left for the head coaching position at James Madison University and former defensive line coach Mike Vrabel took a job with the Houston Texans as their linebackers coach.
Co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash and defensive line coach Larry Johnson were brought in to overhaul a defense that gave up a combined 115 points in its final three games last season, and the players have responded to the new defensive style.
Ash was brought in after one season as defensive coordinator at Arkansas while Johnson was a member of the Penn State coaching staff for 18 years before joining Meyer’s crew in Columbus.
“I think that the scheme change — playing a more aggressive defense — it’s a little bit easier to grasp and has helped us a lot,” junior linebacker Joshua Perry said.
Perry said the new aggressive style of play particularly helps the linebackers better play to their skill sets.
“We have got some of those guys who played safety in high school. Kind of the hybrid guys who are a little bit lighter and they can hit which is really important,” Perry said. “We have got some of the other guys like (freshman Raekwon McMillan) and (senior Curtis Grant) and myself, who are a little bit of the bigger guys who can still run and cover.”
Junior cornerback Armani Reeves said the new scheme has also helped out a secondary that let up an average of 378 yards passing in its final three games last season.
“I am very excited,” Reeves said of the new defense. “Playing bump-and-run and playing physical, being able to use our skills — you got (redshirt-freshman Eli Apple), (redshirt-freshman Gareon Conley), (who are) big long corners, then you got me and (senior Doran Grant) that are really strong and really know how to manhandle the wide receivers.”
Coach Urban Meyer said the corner position opposite Doran Grant is still up for grabs heading into the first game against Navy.
“The other corner, it’s Eli and Gareon. They haven’t separated themselves yet either, which is a good sign,” Meyer said. “They’ll both play.”
Reeves said while the two young players continue to fight for playing time, they each have distinctive skills.
“They both bring a different type of style to their game, but that’s what makes them special,” he said. “Gareon has really fluid hips, and he reads routes really well and Eli is a really strong and physical guy so they both play a little bit different.”
The new style of play is set to be tested against an uncommon offensive scheme with Navy, a team that runs a triple-option wishbone look which features the quarterback and wing backs in a run-heavy style offense.
While playing against such an unusual offense would normally be a tough challenge, Perry said having the entire offseason to practice for it has helped.
“The really good thing for us is we have had all camp to prepare,” Perry said. “Whereas you would come in on a typical game week and you really only have four or five days to prepare.”
The attitude and toughness that comes with playing against a U.S. military academy is something the Buckeye defense have also been preparing for, Perry said.
“That is something we talked about in meetings today. These guys are guys who are trained to be fearless,” he said. “They are trained to be relentless all the time. We know that we have to go full go the whole game.”
The Buckeyes are set to play Navy on Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Kickoff is scheduled for noon.