Ohio State Striving To Improve Pass Defense This Spring
By Matt Natali
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio has suffered through one of the worst winters on the meteorological record books, but signs of a spring respite are the air as Ohio State kicked off spring practice on Tuesday. The Buckeyes will participate in 15 practices during the course of the next five weeks, culminating with the spring game on April 12.
“We’ve got to improve and we’ve got to finish but I like where we are at as a team,” head coach Urban Meyer said during a press conference after Tuesday’s practice. “I want an angry, blue-collar team and I am hoping that is what we have. We’re just trying to find out who is going to play for us in some spots.”
Ohio State returns 39 lettermen, including 12 starters, from a team that lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and lost to Clemson in the Orange Bowl. The Buckeyes finished 12-2 and ranked No. 12 in the final AP poll.
In the first of a six-part series, we take a look at each unit for Ohio State during spring practice and examine the key losses, top returning players, key newcomers, strengths, weaknesses and all the pertinent information surrounding the team during preparation for the 2014 season.
We kick it all off with today with the Ohio State secondary.
The Buckeyes will be missing three very familiar faces in the secondary in 2014 as All-American cornerback Bradley Roby departs for the NFL and senior safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett leave two more big holes. Granted, Ohio State finished No. 11 in the conference in pass defense last season, No. 110 in the country and gave up more passing touchdowns (31) than all but five FBS schools. But Roby, Bryant and Barnett provided a wealth of talent, experience and leadership on defense.
Roby was named to the all-Big Ten team the last two seasons. He started 37 games in his career and recorded 44 passes defended, including 36 pass breakups and eight interceptions. In 2012, Roby led the nation with 19 passes defended. His 226 interception return yards rank third in Ohio State history, and he returned two picks for touchdowns in his career.
Bryant was a three-year starter and emotional leader but suffered a season-ending broken ankle against Wisconsin last season. Bryant, who was denied a medical redshirt after the injury, had 171 career tackles, 23 pass breakups and two interceptions
Barnett boasted the most experience with 45 games played, including 37 starts, and recorded 224 career tackles (145 solo) and eight interceptions.
Top Returning Players
Junior corner Doran Grant returns, providing a familiar face in the Ohio State secondary with 15 career starts. Grant had three interceptions last season and 10 pass breakups while recording 58 tackles.
“I think Doran Grant is a different player than he was a year ago. He’s much more aggressive,” Meyer said.
Junior corner Armani Reeves started three games last season in place of Roby and had seven pass breakups, an interception and 26 tackles.
Grant and Reeves are the only players with any game experience at corner as sophomore Cam Burrows moves over to safety. Burrows played in 12 games last season, mostly on special teams, but recorded three tackles in limited action.
Burrows joins sophomores Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell at safety. Each saw the field for Ohio State last season. Powell had 48 tackles and made a game-deciding interception on a two-point conversion against bitter rival Michigan to seal the win. Bell saw plenty of time on special teams and started in the Orange Bowl. He recorded seven tackles and an interception in the loss to Clemson.
“I like Vonn (Bell), Tyvis (Powell) and Cam Burrows – they are quick-twitch trigger guys back there,” Meyer said.
Fourth-year junior Ron Tanner, who had an interception against Buffalo last season, also will be in the mix for playing time.
“Ron (Tanner) lacks some physical skills, but he is a great, tough kid,” Meyer said. “I like our safeties right now, but we only have three.”
New Faces In New Places
Ohio State has seven early enrollees from the 2014 recruiting class, but none of the players participating in spring ball are cornerbacks or safeties. However, sophomore corner Eli Apple enters his second spring and was a five-star prospect when he enrolled early with the 2013 recruiting class. He came into Ohio State ranked as the No. 11 prospect in the country, according to ESPN, and played in the U.S. Army All-American game. He crept into the two-deep last year and could make a serious case for playing time in 2014.
Sophomore Gareon Conley is another corner to keep an eye on. He was rated as the No. 1 player from Ohio in the 2013 recruiting class, according to ESPN, and played in the Under Armour All-American game as a high school senior.
Sophomore Jayme Thompson also could see time at safety, at least in a backup role. ESPN considered him the top safety in Ohio in his class and the No. 218 prospect in the country.
Freshman due on campus in the fall expected to compete for field time include Erick Smith and Malik Hooker at safety with Marshon Lattimore and Damon Webb at corner. Smith, Lattimore, and Webb are four-star prospects, according to 247sports.com, and Smith was a three-star prospect.
Speaking of new faces, Meyer hired on Chris Ash as the safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator in January after Everett Withers took the heading coaching job at James Madison.
"I was attracted to this position because it is Ohio State," Ash said after being hired, "and I had to wonder if I ever would have this opportunity again. This is one of the top five college football programs in the country. It has tremendous history and tradition, and it is a great academic institution.
"The opportunity to work for Coach Meyer and to learn as a part of his staff will absolutely enhance my knowledge of the game and my coaching experiences."
Ash brings his aggressive 4-3 defense comes from Arkansas, where he helped improve the Razorbacks' pass defense by more than 50 yards per game in just one season. Arkansas was rated No. 72 in the country passing yards allowed last season after finishing No. 113 in 2012.
Ash has Big Ten experience, as well, serving as Wisconsin’s defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator from 2010-12.
"We've competed against a Chris Ash defense before and I have respect for him as a coach," Meyer said when announcing Ash’s hiring. "I like the fact he has experience in the Big Ten Conference and that he is a great recruiter. He was highly recommended by everyone I spoke to."
Considering Ohio State’s pass defense last season, Ohio State fans have plenty to be excited about with Ash now donning the scarlet and gray.
Next week we'll take a look at the Ohio State linebackers.