There was an unmistakable air about the Ohio State defense coming out of spring practice. Call it a renewed confidence.
It certainly wasn’t there in January after playing Clemson in the Orange Bowl, when the Buckeyes were blitzed by yet another strong passing game and suffered a second straight loss. Since then, coach Urban Meyer has said that Ohio State did not have a defense worthy of competing for a national championship and that he intended to fix it.
Whether the move to a more aggressive approach, authored by new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, has fixed the problems in game situations won’t be known until the 2014 season begins. But the uptick mentally among defenders was obvious during spring practice, which concluded on Saturday with the spring game.
“I feel like we have a lot of momentum right now, heading into the summer and also training camp,” said senior cornerback Doran Grant, the only returning full-time starter in the secondary. “It feels good, but we’ve got to finish it in the fall and take care of it.”
The feel-good atmosphere was invigorated by one critical approach:
“Every snap, we get to challenge everything,” Grant said.
That was not the sense the defenders had after the Orange Bowl and before that against Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game, a loss that eliminated the Buckeyes from consideration for the national championship game.
“It was frustrating that we were giving up plays and that we were losing,” Grant said. “We were 24-0, then we lost two games, and I feel like we have something to prove. That’s what we did this spring, and that’s what we’re going to do this fall.”
The players knew that the change to a more aggressive approach was out of necessity, said safety Tyvis Powell, whose interception of a last-minute two-point conversion attempt against Michigan likely kept Ohio State from finishing with three straight losses.
“I knew we had to make a drastic improvement in the pass defense,” Powell said. “The problem with last year is I felt like a lot of people just had this fear that they didn’t want to get beat deep, and it didn’t allow them to be aggressive on the short stuff, which was killing us.
“So this year, we just said, ‘Forget it. We’re going to be aggressive,’ and our effort will make up for it. Like if we get double moves, as long as you’re reading your keys … you’re going to make up for that false, or that double move.”
In the spring, Eli Apple and Gareon Conley rose to challenge for playing time behind Grant and Armani Reeves, who was projected as the other starting cornerback.
But Powell said adding depth in the front seven was just as significant, as he watched linebackers Darron Lee, Chris Worley and freshman Raekwon McMillan blossom in a group that includes returning starters Joshua Perry and Curtis Grant and veteran Cam Williams.
“It took a lot of pressure (away) and allowed me to focus on what I’ve got to do,” Powell said. “I don’t have to be really as concerned about the run. We’ve got a front seven that is actually going to take care of the run. That will allow me to take care of my job and trust they are going to take care of their job.”
Reserve safety leaving
Meyer said reserve safety Jayme Thompson has been granted a release, with the aim of transferring to another school. Thompson, a redshirt freshman, suffered a high ankle sprain early in preseason camp last year.