Yeah, it was only one day, but the Buckeyes’ DBs had a definite different look as they opened spring practice this week.
Defensive backs were the main eye-catchers on the first day of Ohio State football spring practice for 2014.
We have heard all about what effect new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash will have on a secondary that was the second-worst in Ohio State history last season, and it was on display yesterday as the Buckeyes worked out sans pads.
So Ohio State finally confirmed the hiring of Chris Ash as safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator. Along with new defensive line coach and assistant head coach Larry Johnson, Ash completes Urban Meyer’s staff for 2014.
After the two get off the road from recruiting, they will find a defense left in shambles at the end of last season, the last of three years of regression that followed a decade of stellar play.
Johnson has a reputation as an outstanding position coach, and he will find a group that performed well in a trial by fire this past season. The stout, fundamentally tough play he taught at Penn State could blend very nicely with the aggressive style outgoing coach Mike Vrabel instilled in the group.
Ash’s job figures to be much tougher, though he will have a nearly clean slate when he and holdover Kerry Coombs work to rebuild a secondary that gave up 268.0 yards per game last season, almost 25 more than a year earlier. Continue reading
A second look at the Buckeyes’ win on Saturday revealed that Ohio State and Iowa staged an interesting chess match Saturday at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State had more answers, both in terms of Xs and Os and Jimmies and Joes.
Ohio State’s first season in Urban Meyer’s spread offense was a big success by most measures, but the head coach and his offensive coordinator want much more in year two. We examine how they can improve and take a look at a past example of an OSU offense going from good to great in its second season with a new attack – Scout.com: Buckeyes Want To Add Read, Speed in 2013
Safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers focused his talk on defending empty formations.
He showed a picture of Jack Tatum and said now rulemakers are legislating toughness out of the game, which he doesn’t like. That makes it harder for safeties to protect their home – the middle of the field.
They coach from a foundation of four things – toughness, tackling, turnovers and effort.
Defensively, coaches need to identify their players’ strengths and play to them. They also have to identify what type of quarterback they are facing and how the offense wants to attack.
Defending sideline to sideline is kind of a myth.
A lot of spread teams like to throw inside, but anyway they are often only going to go to a few certain spots. Identify decoys and ignore those, such as a traditional running back split out wide.
In playing zone concepts, he explained they will play a one-high defense to take away short and underneath throws. They want to deny those and move the quarterback off his spot with the pass rush, even if that is only three guys. Then the QB has to resort to throwing it away or going wide, where they should have someone establishing leverage and others rallying to the ball.
Two-deep zones limit inside coverages, and linebackers become key to guarding the voids that develop.
When he moves to man principles, he had a power point with actual pictures of bullets serving as presentation bullets, so that was cool.
They play man to man to do one of two things – force tight, accurate throws or sack the quarterback.
They are still conceding decoys in man or zone. They don’t expect a team to throw wide to the field without rolling that way, something that tips off the defense and gives it time to react.
Offenses with a running quarterback can present an extra threat, so he advised using a safety instead of a linebacker as a hole defender.
If blitzing an empty set, you have to give the players confidence they are going to get there. It takes guts to put yourself out there, but you’ve got to do it, and hitting the quarterback takes its toll on him.
They showed a clip of a blitzer making Taylor Martinez throw badly off his back foot in last year’s Nebraska game, to which Withers quipped, “I’m sure that’s on their clinic tape of how to throw.”
Finally, if the offense stops using empty sets and adds a running back, that means you’ve won as a defense.
Whatever you do, he stressed you have to commit to what you are.
After breaking down the defense previously, it’s time to take a look at the offense.
The 2012 season was a fascinating one on that side of the ball for Ohio State as the Buckeyes worked to absorb the new spread offense of head coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who also serves as quarterbacks coach.
It will be no less interesting this year with that pair hoping they have more parts to allow the unique and innovative attack to truly take flight.
Meyer expressed frustration regularly last season about the lack of playmakers on offense even as the Buckeyes led the Big Ten in scoring and finished just four touchdowns shy of tying the school record in a single season (they had 60).
He hopes to have tackled that problem this winter by adding a trio of players that are tough to bring down in the open field: Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson and James Clark.
Marshall was the first to commit (in January 2012) and might have faced a heavy load as the Buckeyes’ slot receiver if not for the recent decisions of Wilson and Clark to jump on. The top-rated player in Ohio, Marshall is a solid 6-0, 190 pounder who played quarterback at Middletown and brings a variety of skills to the Buckeyes. Wilson (5-10, 174) and Clark (5-11, 170) are smaller, scat-back types whom Meyer hopes can stretch defenses horizontally with pure speed and make yards after the catch with their agility.
The youngsters probably won’t be able to walk right into a starting role, though, as the addition of a couple more athletes might result in a re-shuffling of the wide receivers already on hand. In addition to the slot receivers, Meyer secured signatures from Corey Smith and Gareon Conley, two bigger prospects (6-1 and 6-2, respectively) who can go down the field and battle corners for catches, creating space for the others to work underneath.
A four-star cornerback prospect, Conley could end up on the defensive side of the ball, but Smith is expected to compete immediately for playing time on the outside. A junior college prospect, the 180-pounder’s presence could allow senior Corey “Philly” Brown to move inside to the slot. The speedy Brown led the Buckeyes in catches last season but might be miscast as the possession receiver he essentially became as the 2012 campaign wore on.
Tight end Marcus Baugh figures to find playing time hard to come by this season, but the 6-4, 245-pound Californian might be able to carve out a niche as a change-of-pace when compared to veterans Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett. The elder players don’t lack athleticism, but they are more traditional Big Ten tight ends who excel as blockers while Baugh is known for his ability as a receiver in the open field.
The only traditional running back in Ohio State’s class of 2013, Ezekiel Elliott will not be lonely when he shows up for his first position meeting. Thanks to Jordan Hall’s medical redshirt, the Buckeyes have six running backs on scholarship for the coming season. The group includes power backs Carlos Hyde (who will be a senior after running for nearly 1,000 yards last season), junior Rod Smith, sophomore Bri’onte Dunn and redshirt freshman Warren Ball as well as the smaller, shifty Hall.
Offensive line is the only area Meyer expressed some disappointment, admitting the ability to sign only two players puts the coaching staff on notice to stock up on big uglies in 2014. Neither Evan Lisle, a four-star prospect ticketed for tackle, or Tim Gardner, a three-star who seems fit for guard, figures to be pressed into duty any time soon as four starters return for 2013 and the staff is high on the potential of rising sophomores Chase Farris, Taylor Decker and Jacoby Boren. However, four starters will graduate after next season, so a strong freshman campaign could set up one or both of the new signees for a run at major playing time as a sophomore or redshirt freshman. The 6-6, 290-pound Lisle in particular is considered a major prospect for his long, athletic frame.
Lastly there is quarterback. There is no spot less primed for an immediate impact than signal caller, but that is probably fine with everyone involved. J.T. Barrett is a four-star recruit who enrolled in January, but the 6-1, 225-pound Texan is still rehabilitating a knee injury that cut short his high school career. Meyer and Herman have already observed a work ethic and leadership they love in the youngster, who will find himself fourth on the depth chart this fall and is likely ticketed for a redshirt.
All in all, it should be fascinating to watch the staff put together the new pieces. Herman spoke at the signing day press conference about using the additional speed and shiftiness at receiver (out wide but especially in the slot) to “protect” the running game that revolved around dynamic quarterback Braxton Miller and Hyde last season. That represents something of a twist on the old “run to set up the pass” mentality, and it is a reality of playing spread football in the 21st century.
Michigan and Wisconsin provided a blueprint for slowing down the OSU attack last November by crowding the line of scrimmage on early downs and doing just the opposite when the Buckeyes fell behind the chains, but speedsters in the slot could create new ways to punish such strategies in 2013.
This week’s column comes from Jim Hendrix, if for no other reason than no song has more versions in my iTunes playlist than Red House.
What we learned last week: Indiana is not ready for prime time. The Hoosiers’ game against Wisconsin started at noon on Saturday, but they left little doubt about that with how they performed. As such, they won’t be in the Big Ten championship game a couple Saturday nights from now.
The final numbers say Wisconsin dominated in every way, but Indiana missed some chances especially early on to put together some drives. The quarterbacks did not execute opportunities with open receivers to keep the chains moving.
Of course, Wisconsin’s success on the ground came as no surprise. Indiana had already shown it can’t stop the run, and Wisconsin had already shown it can run all over bad defenses. What we don’t know yet – even with 10 games down – is if Wisconsin can run on a good defense. Or if Wisconsin can stop good passing offenses. I hoped to learn about the latter this past week, but Indiana seemed to leave a lot of opportunities on the field.
I would say there’s no doubt Indiana still has a lot of work to do from a cultural standpoint, too. Head coach Kevin Wilson seems to have the program moving in the right direction, but there is something to be said for expecting to win, in feeling like you can compete with the teams at the top of the standings. Wisconsin has thoroughly dominated Indiana the past few years, and Indiana looked somewhat intimidated. That probably had something to do with the lack of execution in the hurry-up spread offense. Of course, there is hardly a better example than the Badgers themselves for an example of how things can change over the years (See: Wisconsin football, 1963-92).
Wisconsin (2012 edition) does get credit, though, for turning things around based on all the negative momentum the Badgers seemed to have through the first month of the season. The Big Ten is not all that formidable this year, but you’ve still got to take care of business. Wisconsin has been doing that, at least against the lesser teams in the league. It’s no coincidence to me that they have lost to Michigan State and Nebraska, two teams along with Ohio State and Michigan that are better than the rest, whatever that might mean this year.
Of course, it is fair to wonder about Ohio State’s level of competition. The Buckeyes’ best win would be against Nebraska, followed then I suppose by Penn State and the disappointing Spartans.
I’m not sure Indiana will ever be able to put together a defense that will scare anyone (you can’t hide subpar athletes on that side of the ball), but the other Big Ten school in the Hoosier State already enjoyed a pretty nice decade (including a conference championship, something Indiana hasn’t won since 1967) with a throw-centric, spread offense.
Stranger things have happened – Like Wisconsin winning all or part of five of the last 20 Big Ten titles after winning none of the 31 before that.
What we can expect to learn this week: Which is more “back” – the Wisconsin offense or the Ohio State defense?
OK, that is sort of over simplistic, but the trip to Madison definitely provides some interesting matchups this week as Ohio State’s strength – physically running the football – faces an improved Wisconsin front seven. However, I think Ohio State’s ability to spread the field presents some problems for Wisconsin, whose athleticism I’m still not sold on.
With a much less coherent plan on offense and more raw players in key spots, Ohio State ran all over the Badgers last season. Wisconsin looks better up front this time around – some seasoning on the line has helped – but Ohio State is much, much better on all fronts on offense.
Wisconsin’s pass defense is untested, but Ohio State’s passing offense is still searching for consistency. This could be a week for Braxton Miller to make hay with his arm, but he will have to do a better job of controlling his emotions than when he went to Penn State. There are now proven threats on the outside if the sophomore signal caller can get them the ball.
Miller’s talent eventually showed through in Happy Valley, but he was fortunate some early miscues were not exploited by the Nittany Lions. Recent history has already shown us what happens when an Ohio State team goes to Camp Randall Stadium and lets the Badgers get off to a hot start.
Like the Wisconsin offense, the Ohio State defense has spent a fair amount of this season looking for ways to rekindle past successes. The Buckeyes are trending upward in that area, however, and more of their problems have come against the pass than the run.
What success Wisconsin has had moving the ball through the air this season came with Joel Stave at the helm, and he is out for the season. With Danny O’Brien ineffective in relief of Stave, Bret Bielema turned to Curt Phillips last week but revealed little about what the oft-injured upperclassman can do with his arm. Phillips was considered a guy with enough athleticism to hurt teams outside the pocket before injuries derailed his career, and he flashed a little bit of that in Bloomington despite all that time on the shelf. It will be interesting to see if Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada draws up more things to take advantage of Phillips’ legs this week considering the Buckeyes have had some problems with dual-threat quarterbacks. I thought he did a good job varying his running game against the Hoosiers as he avoided putting much on Phillips, who threw only seven passes in Bloomington.
One also wonders if Ohio State will have any problems preparing for a quarterback for whom there is very little scouting report.
The Buckeye defense will have a definite advantage on the outside, where Wisconsin has not found anyone to complement Jared Abbrederis at wide receiver now that Nick Toon has moved on to the NFL. The Badgers do have a few interesting athletes at tight end/fullback who can provide matchup problems, but can they take advantage with Phillips at quarterback?
Overall, this has to be considered a good matchup for the Ohio State on both sides of the ball, but getting a win in Madison is never a sure thing.
This week’s column looks to Lynyrd Skynyrd for inspiration as we examine why the Buckeye defense has looked more like its old self the past couple of weeks. Hint: It’s really not that complicated. With Ohio State off this week, we also take a look at the most interesting Big Ten matchup on tap while also keeping an eye on the Buckeyes’ next opponent.
What we learned this week: It’s amazing what better players can do for a defense.
That Ohio State is playing better when the other team has the ball is no coincidence when you look at the players in the lineup.
There is no doubt they were missing Nathan Williams, who was not there for Indiana, and they needed players like Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington to step up.
Perhaps the unit would have rounded into form sooner with the improving play of Etienne Sabino against Michigan State and (a very good) Nebraska offense, but his injury set them back yet again before that debacle in Indiana on Oct. 13.
Zach Boren’s move to linebacker from fullback was necessitated by the broken bone in Sabino’s leg, and the Boren of the 52-22 win over Illinois is a better player than the one of the 52-49 win over the Hooisers three weeks earlier.
Don’t forget CJ Barnett was out of the lineup for a few games and needed a little time to get re-acclimated with the rest of his teammates in the speed of the game, too. That was key as it allowed Orhian Johnson to return to Star, where he has been the most productive player at the position this season.
I hate to sound like an excuse machine for the coaching staff, but sometimes people go a little overboard in looking to blame people when something goes wrong. Often there really are reasonable explanations for why things don’t turn out exactly how they’re expected to.
On top of all that, you’ve got a new staff learning what each member knows, what the players can do within that knowledge and how to put it all together.
I like the potential of the quarters coverage that they went into the season wanting to play, but I can see where it could be a dicey situation, with a variety of people learning it all at once. I like the different options it gives you, and I think it’s just about the best coverage out there – when played correctly – but then I’m a little old school in defensive philosophy. I grew up in an old-fashioned 5-2 set that involved hitting, reading and shedding blocks at every position up front rather than all of mostly anchoring one spot. I get the ups and downs involved. I see that it puts a lot of responsibility on each individual player, and that it leaves the door open for one guy’s mistake to make more of a negative impact on a play, but done right it’s pretty dang hard to beat because when you have so many guys playing two gaps, you’ve got multiple outs all over the field. It can work out to be the equivalent of having extra defenders out there, a reverse of what the offense is trying to do with the zone read and option stuff that hs become so prevalent in the past decade.
To their credit, the coaching staff never seem to panic. They’ve all been through transitions like this before, and surely they had seen some of the similar struggles. They knew it wouldn’t happen overnight no matter how badly everyone wanted it to.
Urban Meyer’s greatest strength as a coach is undoubtedly his passion, but sometimes I think that gets him in a little trouble. And I’m not just talking about his famous bout with burnout, I’m talking about even just with the things he says.
As a member of the media I certainly appreciate his bluntness and honesty with us in terms of a lot of different things he says, but I think sometimes he gets a little ahead of himself. Sometimes we hear him talking about what he wants to see in an ideal situation, but I am pretty confident he’s realistic enough to know he’s going to have to settle for less than perfect on a regular basis, particularly in Year One, whether he likes it or not. That usually comes out through the course of a 30-minute press conference, but sometimes it gets lost in our little soundbite world that we now live because the first thing is often what gets highlighted even if the next sentence hollows it out a little bit and brings it back to the center.
Slowing down that Illinois offense is no great feat in and of itself, but holding any team under 200 total yards is to be commended. It’s more than we probably would have expected to see from this Ohio State unit even against a bad offense prior to this week, so in a world where average is somewhat understandably surprising to see, we should know when the defense turns in a dominant performance.
Meanwhile, the offense putting 50 points on the board without Braxton Miller going absolutely crazy is noteworthy as well. It speaks to the development of a lot of guys around him. The offensive line obviously did a lot of work to make holes for Carlos Hyde, and the junior running back did his best to take advantage.
Meyer sounded a little bit sour after the game, but when you can nitpick a specific part of the passing game after quarterback throws for 220 yards and a touchdown, you must be living okay. Don’t overlook the fact he was complaining about only the drop-back passing game, not the play-action part that was just fine, and quite productive as a matter of fact.
Bottom line: Players are developing and/or getting healthier on both sides of the ball, and that usually makes coaching a lot easier to do.
What we can expect to learn this week: How good is Wisconsin’s defense in space?
The Badgers have stopped a two-year slide in effectiveness of their stop unit this season, but I’m not sure how tested they truly are yet.
Nebraska spent half its win over the Badgers in late September running into itself and shooting itself in the foot and still gained 340 yards and scored 30 points in the conference opener.
Since then, Wisconsin’s defense has played somewhere between well and okay, but the competition still hasn’t been much to be scared of, particularly as far as passing goes.
Purdue has good threats on the outside, but hapless Danny Hope played around with his quarterbacks that afternoon and probably hurt the chances of his team getting into any type of rhythm. As against Ohio State, the Boilermakers picked up almost all of their yards on a handful of big plays. Wisconsin picked off two Minnesota passes, but that was against a true freshman in his first start. Andrew Maxwell, the league’s No. 10-most efficient passer at the moment, threw for 216 yards and two touchdowns without an interception as Michigan State beat the Badgers in overtime two weeks ago. The Badgers slowed down Le’Veon Bell, but most good defenses do because of the poor quality of the MSU offensive line.
And why does this matter? Because Indiana has the best passing game in the Big Ten and plays host to Wisconsin this weekend in what could turn out to be a de facto Big Ten Leaders division title game.
Not only are there high stakes, the noon game is of added interest because the Buckeyes are idle and Wisconsin is their next obstacle to a perfect start under Urban Meyer.
If Indiana can stretch the Badgers out from sideline to sideline, and execute consistently, there should be plenty of opportunities to make things happens. Running back Stephen Houston is a weapon as well on the inside for head coach Kevin Wilson’s Hoosiers.
The Buckeyes have to like their chances against that Wisconsin defense if it has problems dealing with improving Indiana. Although what they want to accomplish with their formations is different, the Buckeyes will be able to provide some of the same problems in space in two weeks in Camp Randall Stadium when they look to improve to 11-0.
Observations from a second viewing of the Buckeyes and Bears…
Pretty simple reason the Ohio State defense struggled against the run in the second half: Cal went with 11 personnel (one back, one tight end) to get Ohio State to remove a guy from the box as it was aligning the front line strength to the field. (Hat tip to Ross Fulton for pointing this out on Twitter right after Urban Meyer made reference to it during his weekly press luncheon.) This was sound to begin with but made even more effective by the physical state of the defensive end to that side. John Simon would probably not admit it, but his bad shoulder seemed to hinder him against the run more than the pass as he was regularly unable to disengage from a blocker when the play was at him. I guess time will tell how good of a blocker the Cal tight end is, but Simon is typically going to beat even talented guys one on one regularly. I think then we also learned that Ryan Shazier is better as a run and hit guy than he is holding a gap on the play side. I don’t think Shazier was doing anything wrong (he made 13 tackles and graded out as a champion when the coaches did their film review, so he clearly played well), but he is not as dynamic when a team runs right at him. Then he is forced to spill the play rather than attack it. It didn’t help that the fill from the safety was inconsistent and the flow from the middle linebacker – whoever that happened to be depending on package and alignment – was pretty much nonexistent.
Playing off that, the base defense isn’t very good right now either because Curtis Grant isn’t offering much production. He had a running back stood up on one of Isi Sofele’s long runs in the first half but hit him too high and did not wrap up. Storm Klein did not offer much more when he replaced Grant, and then OSU played mostly nickel in the second half. The nickel wasn’t much of an improvement as neither Etienne Sabino (who moves to the middle in that package) or nickel back Orhian Johnson did much to impact the Cal running game.
The Bears strategy not only gave them a regular numbers advantage, it effectively avoided Johnathan Hankins. That made sense because they could not block him at all. He had 10 tackles and was all over the place. Before last missed field goal, OSU went with its own eagle look and Hankins stuffed the fullback dive basically by himself. He stoned a double team at the point of attack long enough for Sabino to pursue down the line and clean it up with the help of Christian Bryant. The coaching staff adjusted after the last long Cal touchdown run and began aligning to the strength of the formation regardless of which hash the ball was on, allowing Hankins to be involved in more plays.
I think both Bear running backs are tough, talented runners, but tackling was a glaring problem all over the back seven for the Buckeyes. Lots of sloppy technique.
Ohio State effectively mixed in some more pressures to get three sacks early, but the Bears also caught them in a couple of blitzes with screen passes. It’s worth noting the blitzes were effective despite not being very transparent. Until late in the fourth quarter, they only deviated from the field over defensive alignment when they were going to blitz. Then they did a couple of different things, including roll out a new version of their 3-3-5 “dime” defense that had the Leo (Nathan Williams mostly but also Noah Spence a time or two) playing in the middle with Sabino and Shazier on the outside. I cannot recall ever seeing Ohio State do this. It will be interesting to learn if this is a new scheme or just moving people around within what they were already doing.
Regarding the Buckeye offense…
Cal seemed to do Ohio State a favor by coming out in a four-man front instead of the “Bear 46″ look the Buckeyes were expecting. The move to the Bear with a nose guard over the center and linemen in both guard-tackle gaps caused some confusion in the third quarter, but I think mistakes and penalties had as much or more to do with the Buckeyes’ struggles during that stanza. The response was to get Braxton Miller to the outside with a couple of speed options (he even pitched effectively, something we hadn’t seen much of before) and then to empty out the formation to take advantage of where the defense had fewer people.
It is interesting that the strategic reaction within this offensive world is to keep taking people out of the box if things are gummed up rather than try to block it a different way. At least that has been the answer so far, but it has only been three games. With different personnel available than Meyer had at his previous stops, I wonder how this will evolve. Health of the backs will play a role, too, of course, but he has multiple guys who are both athletic and can block. I think he likes the mix of a speedy quarterback, big running back and then a ‘tweener in the slot. Better to have the running back be the battering ram than the quarterback regardless of how great Tim Tebow was as a short-yardage runner. That limits exposure of the quarterback by giving you a different go-to option on short-yardage situations, plays that dictate using the best available weapon regardless of how many times he might have already carried it. Plus quickness is better in a change of pace than power, and the times the quarterback has the ball are more likely to be in potential big-play situations – out on the edge with the defense perhaps preoccupied. Unlike anyone else, the number of carries a quarterback can end up with is an ever-changing one as a game progresses.
However, there is no doubt Miller is their most dangerous weapon. Meyer said he expects to see teams come at Ohio State with ways to get the ball out of Miller’s hands, in which case his response might be more designed runs for the quarterback. So he is not going to retreat from using Miller. They are comfortable with him being the tip of the spear, as they should be. They have to do what they have to do to win games.
To this end, I almost wonder if the tackle beating Marcus Hall and Corey Linsley to the inside via a stunt did OSU a favor by flushing Miller on the game-winning pass play to Devin Smith. He throws more accurately on the run at this point in his career. Multiple times this season he has had a guy open like Smith and rushed it and delivered a less accurate throw. When he is out on the run and not thinking too much, he can let his gifts take over and just sling it. Or juke a guy out of his shoes, of course.
The pieces are in place for the offense to be very good. Miller and Smith are developing both chemistry to work with each other and their individual talents to take matters into their own hands when necessary. The line has been solid but has room to grow, and Jordan Hall needs some time to get re-acclimated to carrying the ball. I think he needs Carlos Hyde to come back so he can slip outside sometimes into a role that fits him better, too. Hyde’s power presence is essential for the overall picture of the offense to be complete.
Defensively, I’m wondering if there are some people who are just going to have to be replaced. The line is banged up but still offering a lot of production. Shazier is a stud at linebacker but he hasn’t gotten much help. The corners look good, but the safeties continue to make the same mistakes they made last year, particularly when it comes to tackling. One wonders how long that will go on.