At the end of the 2013-14 football season, it was evident what the Ohio State football team lacked — pass defense.
At the end of the 2014-15 season, that position ended up being one of the reasons the Buckeyes came out as national champions.
The OSU pass defense, which allowed 31 touchdown passes while forcing just 16 interceptions in 2013, came back with a force in 2014, allowing just 17 aerial scores and picking off opposing quarterbacks 25 times.
By that same token, the 112th-ranked Buckeye passing defense improved to 29th in the country in just a year’s time, largely because of co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash and the emergence of young talent.
One of those young players was redshirt-freshman cornerback Eli Apple, who took over the corner spot left vacant by Bradley Roby following the 2013 season.
Apple, who struggled early on in coverage, made up for it with his ability to get off blocks and make tackles in open space.
Making tackles in space was something that OSU had struggled with in the past, especially in the 2014 Orange Bowl when Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins collected 202 of his 227 receiving yards against the Buckeyes after making a reception.
Apple’s presence was felt in two of OSU’s biggest games this season: Michigan State and the national title win over Oregon.
Against Michigan State, Apple did not start because of an injury that had sidelined him for most of the week leading up to the game.
After Apple’s replacement, redshirt-freshman Gareon Conley, struggled in the early going, giving up two big plays, Apple came in to total four tackles, including one for a loss from his corner spot on little to no practice time that week.
Against Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota in the national championship game, Apple recorded a career-high seven tackles and intercepted Mariota on the final play of the game to help the Buckeyes to their first national title win since 2002.
Opposite Apple, senior cornerback Doran Grant took on Heisman finalist Amari Cooper in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama and held the Crimson Tide receiver under 100 yards, and was only assigned to Cooper on one of the two touchdowns scored by Cooper in that game.
Grant also shut down Big Ten wide receiver of the year Tony Lippett of MSU to just 64 yards receiving and did not allow Lippett into the end zone once in what most would consider the Big Ten game of the year.
Rounding out the Buckeye secondary are sophomore safety Vonn Bell and redshirt-sophomore Tyvis Powell.
Bell came up big for the Buckeye secondary when they needed him the most, as he recorded interceptions in both the Big Ten and Sugar Bowl championship games, in addition to finishing second on the defense in total tackles with 92 and leading the team with six interceptions on the year.
Powell, who stepped onto the scene with an interception to seal a 42-41 victory over Michigan in 2013, continued his success in 2014, coming up with the interception to seal the Sugar Bowl win on the final play and finishing fourth on the team in tackles with 76.
While the Buckeyes lose Grant, the remaining three OSU secondary members should without a doubt lead the way for a successful Buckeye defense in 2015, and retaining Ash to lead them doesn’t hurt.
The Buckeyes are set to return to the field Sept. 7 in Blacksburg, Va., to take on Virginia Tech.