OSU’s young secondary expects to live up to high standards

| By Mike Young |

Urban Meyer’s offenses rack up touchdowns and rank among the nation’s best on the ground since he arrived at Ohio State. The defense, however, hasn’t been quite as consistent.

The struggles on that end of the ball occurred during the first two years of his tenure and the secondary was the main reason why. A combination of scheme and inexperience in that position group led to a mediocre 2012 season and a disastrous 2013 season defending the pass. The numbers were astonishing by Ohio State standards in 2013, as the Buckeyes were No. 112 nationally in passing yards allowed and 31 touchdowns through the air.

Since then, the switch to a different scheme and an influx of talent led to the Buckeyes reclaiming their spot amongst the best defensive teams in the country.

“We have high expectations every year and it’s the same standard this year: to be the best,” said junior cornerback Gareon Conley earlier this month. “There can be no drop off from last year. I want to be even better than last year and I feel like we can do that.”

The 2015 Buckeyes surrendered only 184.5 yards per game through the air, ranking No. 16 nationally. Given the personnel losses, those stats may be difficult to replicate.

Conley is the only returning starter. Top corner Eli Apple, along with safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell all declared for the draft as underclassmen and currently play in the NFL. That will force the raw group of sophomore corners Marshon Lattimore and Denzel Ward, sophomore safety Malik Hooker, junior safety Damon Webb and redshirt freshman Damon Arnette into action.

They may be unfamiliar to some OSU fans now but Lattimore believes they will become well-known names by the end of this season.

“Last year we had speed, but this year we have a lot of speed,” he said. “We’re strong up front and our DBs, from top to bottom, are the best since I’ve been here.”

That statement may come as a shock but coaches and players alike support those lofty goals. The talent is apparent particularly with Webb and Lattimore, two of the highest rated defensive backs in the 2014 class.  Plus, there’s no reason to doubt a school that has produced five NFL Draft picks from its secondary in the past three years.

Cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs thinks Conley is living up to the standards set by NFL players such as Apple, Bradley Roby and Doran Grant, also believing Conley has a chance to be a first round pick one day.

“He’s as ready to be an All-Big Ten corner, an All-American corner as any of them,” Coombs said. “Given the opportunity, I believe that he will be.”

While the comparisons may be valid in Coombs’ mind, others may be concerned that the defense won’t be the same without Chris Ash. The former co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach left Ohio State after two seasons to become the head coach at Rutgers.

Ash brought his Cover-4 press coverage scheme to Columbus from Arkansas and Wisconsin. It took a few games into the 2014 season to click but when it did it helped propel the Buckeyes to a national championship. Their progress was most apparent when OSU held Alabama wide out Amari Cooper to only 71 yards receiving in the Sugar Bowl.

New defensive coordinator and associate head coach Greg Schiano may implement different coverages considering his varying experience running defenses in college and the NFL. It’s unlikely he makes wholesale changes like Ash did because of how successful Ohio State’s defense has been these past two seasons.

Schiano is already trumpeting the program’s most well-known phrases.

“You hear all the time ‘four to six A to B.’ So, go hard, we can clean up the rest. Then, go play physical,” he said. “A huge part of defensive football is tackling. You got to get them on the ground. If you can’t get them on the ground, you’ll never have a good defense.”

To his latter point, Schiano buys into Meyer’s philosophy of teaching “rugby style” tackling – which is best explained by Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll here:

Essentially, defenders at Ohio State are taught to drive their shoulders into the ball carriers hip or midsection and wrap them up while keeping their heads out of the contact area.

All the departures may have given Schiano the right to install some different techniques and coverage schemes. Yet, he appears to be fairly consistent with what Ash imparted during his stint in Columbus.

Luckily for him, Coombs and Meyer, it appears the members of the secondary lack egos and will work well together. Ohio State plans to have a deep rotation this season even if it means fewer snaps for individual players.

“We can’t have selfish guys. The reality is: those four guys are good enough that, when fresh, any one of them is better than the other when tired,” Coombs said. “They all realize that. We plan on having fast, fresh corners every rep of every game.”