So what to make of spring football at Ohio State for 2014? Is it possible to come away feeling good about the defense without also questioning the offense? I’m going to start off by saying yes, but I can’t promise not to change my mind.
The OSU secondary appears to have taken to the new, more aggressive approach brought by co-coordinator Chris Ash. Of course, we had not really gotten to see Gareon Conley or Eli Apple in action much before this spring, but veterans Doran Grant and Armani Reeves seemed to thrive in the new attack as well. All of them certainly seemed comfortable, even from the first day reporters were allowed to watch practice. They got right in the faces of the OSU receivers in position drills, seven-on-seven and scrimmaging. We saw a fair amount of coverage busts — especially involving the tight ends deep — on that first day, but those appeared to dissipate as the spring went on.
Cover 4 safety seems to be a good fit for Tyvis Powell, too, as a bigger player with some experience at corner. Ditto Cam Burrows, though it will be interesting to see how Vonn Bell performs when he returns to health. Bell hasn’t played corner at OSU, but he is super athletic. I got the impression from interviews that Burrows had a solid spring but Bell is still expected to step into the starting spot opposite Powell.
Of course, Darron Lee was something of a revelation at Sam linebacker, which has undergone an evolution from a position that was more like a hybrid end to a hybrid safety. This was perhaps a natural progression, as players and the coaching staff in the past described the Star and the Sam as the same position overall but one that called for so many different skills one player could never fill it. With more teams running spread-style offenses than power, the nickel ended up being the more-used defense, and the SLB effectively became the specialty player as opposed to the nickel back (a.k.a. Star). Now it looks like Ash is moving the defense back in the other direction with the base defense being the, well, base defense and nickel reserved more for specialty situations (like passing downs).
Lee and his backup, Chris Worley, both seem to bring great playmaking instincts to the new Sam position, something that was a key trait for great Stars of the past like Mike Doss, Will Allen and Jermale Hines.
Basically flipping the Sam and Will linebackers looks like a good move for Joshua Perry, too. He’s a bigger guy more suited for playing between the tackles, and he should have a good amount of room to run and make plays at WLB after playing SLB last season.
Will Curtis Grant be able to play MLB against spread teams in this new scheme, where man-to-man coverage is more of a reality for all of the linebackers? That remains to be seen. The glimpses of Raekwon McMillan we saw, I thought he looked more athletic, and Urban Meyer said he should be considered in the running for playing time. I thought when healthy Grant had his moments last season, especially against Wisconsin.
Ability to plug and play seems to be a premium asset these days (not just at Ohio State but all over), and I’d say Lee, Worley and McMillan have the ability to point themselves in the right direction and make things happen. Others need more time to digest everything before they can set themselves loose but then become productive players. Powell, Perry and perhaps Reeves fall into that category, but don’t misunderstand that as lack of intelligence. More likely it would be the opposite. Sometimes guys who are more thoughtful can just think too much but they eventually come around.
A new style of Sam also means a new style of Star, though this evolution really started a couple of years ago. While Star was usually played by a safety in the past, it has been a corner since Meyer arrived with cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs. That continues this year with Armani Reeves as the No. 1 Star even while he continues to battle Conley and Apple for the starting field corner job.
These moves agree with each other and signal a more unified defensive approach, in my opinion.
And what about the front?
New line coach Larry Johnson has declared he will be going back to rotating heavily, and that seems to be a wise move. While predecessor Mike Vrabel got a lot of production out of his starters, it always seemed a bit curious to go away from something that worked so well for so long under Jim Heacock. Of course, because of injuries and youth, Vrabel did not always have the ability to go deep without losing something.
Regardless, the spring game displayed Johnson has options beyond returning starters Noah Spence (who is suspended to start the season of course), Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington and Michael Bennett.
Could Tyquan Lewis be the guy who steps in for Spence? He has bulked up and looks like he has good power to go with a nice first step. If Jamal Marcus can get his affairs in order, that could be quite a battle for snaps early in the season. Michael Hill wasn’t seen much in the early practices that were open, but he was very impressive in the spring game. He’s got a lot of athleticism for an interior guy, can shed a block and find the ball. Donovan Munger and even Chris Carter had their moments inside, too, and Tommy Schutt cannot be forgotten, either.
While the first unit looks to be built to rush the passer, it will be interesting to see if or how Johnson changes things up for teams that play a pro-style or power-oriented game. He talked about wanting to find roles for as many guys as he could, and it is not hard to envision Schutt and others being an important guy against more physical running games.
There are questions, for sure — How will Bell be assimilated back in the group? Will they be able to avoid communication problems that plagued the team last year? What will some of the young guys look like when the lights go on for real? — but I would say it was a positive spring overall.
That doesn’t change the fact this unit had a long way to go to get back to a high level of play. Regaining the consistency of the last decade is probably too much to ask in this short a period of time, but if nothing else this looks like a group that could create more big plays. That certainly beats mostly giving them up.
While there are pros and cons to playing a super aggressive style, the Buckeyes’ problem last season really wasn’t that related to going overboard or being too conservative. It was mostly about making too many mistakes and lacking the developed talent to overcome them.
In that way, Meyer’s approach to this team has been interesting. He isn’t preaching carefulness but rather going the other direction entirely. Mistakes are still bad, but don’t worry about them, because worrying about making mistakes tends to be a zero-sum game. It rarely actually prevents them from happening, but it can take away opportunities to make your own fortune.
The players sound like they have bought the message, but only time will tell how well they express it.