Sixty-one starts departed at safety, yet Ohio State remains confident in their last line of defense.
Former Buckeyes Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell, who started the last two seasons at safety for coach Urban Meyer, are off to the NFL. The “next man up mantra” has never been more prevalent than this season for OSU. The players that fill the spots left open by Bell and Powell need to be consistent despite what their past seasons have indicated.
Junior safety Erick Smith and fourth-year sophomore defensive back Cam Burrows are both recovering from season ending injuries suffered in season last year. Smith is returning after ACL surgery in November, and Burrows underwent surgery on a broken bone in his foot in October. Junior Damon Webb was suspended for five games in 2015 for a reason held internally.
“It feels great, man. Just to be back out there and competing,” Smith said. “I’m medically cleared, but I can always get better. The knee is 100 percent. It’s the things around it that I have to strengthen.”
Smith—ranked as the No. 6 safety in the 2014 recruiting class—and Burrows—the No. 8 cornerback in 2013—are Ohio natives who came in hoping to play immediately. Burrows took a redshirt in 2013 during his freshman year, but he saw time in 2014 with Smith during his true freshman season.
Smith is taking reps at the free safety and strong safety position while not taking part in the nickel package where there are five defensive backs on the field opposed to the standard four.
Burrows is currently practicing with the second-string but first-team in the nickel.
When Smith was injured in November with Burrows already ruled out for the season, now-redshirt sophomore Malik Hooker moved into Smith’s spot on the depth chart behind Bell and Powell. Hooker was listed as the team’s No. 1 safety into spring camp and associate head coach and defensive coordinator Greg Schiano mentioned Hooker being a step ahead of other players at that position.
In the same fashion as Hooker, the other player mentioned by Schiano was Webb.
When asked about his suspension in 2015, Webb was clear that his focus is on this season.
“It was last year,” he said. “I just want to leave it in the past.”
Webb was recruited out of Case Tech High School in Detroit as the fifth-best cornerback recruit in the 2014 class. In the spring, Meyer asked Webb if he wanted to switch to safety. Without a doubt, Webb transitioned to safety, and he is currently taking reps with the first team next to Hooker.
“I feel like my transition has been real good,” Webb said. “The biggest thing was just learning the safety position. Now that I’m playing safety, I have to get used to making the calls, so I had to get used to that.”
What the safety unit may be lacking in starting experience, Hooker, Smith, Burrows and Webb are no strangers to competing for starting positions. Smith said that the household names may have left the program, but the talent is still present.
“We don’t rebuild, we reload,” Smith said. “We never lower our standards. We know we have to be better if not just as good as the people before us.”
Schiano said after Day 5 of practice that the competition is wide open at safety. He added that Smith and Burrows won’t truly feel confident after their injuries until they can perform on the field.
“The thing that I like is that they’re working their tails off. They truly are,” Schiano said. “In the spring we played guys at both positions… we’re starting to zero in.”
No matter who gets the nod on the first team at season’s start, Smith, Burrows and Webb have the opportunity to make a significant impact in 2016 that wasn’t present in 2015. From injury to suspension, the development in fall camp and the availability of the trio for Meyer and Schiano could be a decisive factor in the potency of the defense.