The cornerbacks and safeties had an especially good morning on Saturday, helping the defense rule the day against the OSU offense in a scrimmage at Ohio Stadium. The defense did not allow a touchdown and forced four turnovers. Cornerback Bradley Roby recorded two of those turnovers on interceptions, while safety Jeremy Cash forced a fumble after he leveled Verlon Reed, who had just hauled in a Braxton Miller pass over the middle. Linebacker Dorian Bell caught the loose ball in the air for the change of possession.
The good day for the secondary was even more impressive when considering the fact that the group resembled a MASH unit by the end of practice. The Buckeyes were down to four safeties – Orhian Johnson, Ron Tanner, Nate Oliver and Cash – and five cornerbacks – Travis Howard, Dominic Clarke, Roby, Dionte Allen and walk-on Vincent Petrella. Cornerbacks Adam Griffin and Donnie Evege (out for the season with a knee injury) and safeties Zach Domicone, C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant did not participate in the scrimmage, and two more safeties – Jamie Wood and Nate Ebner – left during the scrimmage because of undisclosed injuries, although Wood appeared to be favoring a shoulder when he came off the field after laying a heavy hit.
A secondary in flux is nothing new for the Buckeyes. The 2010 season saw the back end of the defense ravaged by injury. The group lost several players for portions of the season last fall, including starting safety Barnett (knee), star/nickel back Tyler Moeller (torn pectoral muscle), Moeller's replacement Christian Bryant (foot), reserve cornerback Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown (knee) and all-conference cornerback Chimdi Chekwa (wrist).
"We learned a lot last year," said Johnson, who took over one of the safety positions when Barnett was lost for the season because of injury. "It doesn't matter (where you are in the depth chart) because you never know when you're going to have to come in and play."
Fortunately for the Buckeyes, Moeller and Bryant will return to full strength for preseason camp in August. One of them will likely hold down the star spot, with the other possibly battling Barnett for a starting safety spot alongside returning starter Johnson.
"It's definitely better with competition," Johnson said of the DB depth. "We're always competing against one another. I know the coaches are going to put the best players out there, and we're going to go out and compete no matter what."
At cornerback, Howard has emerged as a strong candidate to take over one of the spots that have come open upon the graduations of Chewka and Devon Torrence. The Miami native has been one of the standouts of the spring and will go into the fall as a heavy favorite to become a starting when the Buckeyes kick the 2011 season off Sept. 3 vs. Akron, likely at the left cornerback positions.
"I feel like if I can stay healthy this season it will be a good season for the defense and the defensive backfield," Howard said.
The other starting cornerback spot appears to be a three-horse race among Clarke, Roby and Allen. All three have shown flashes of potential during the two scrimmages the media has attended, as well as the three 30-minute periods the media was allowed to view other practices.
"They've all been battling," Howard said. "Each of them have had their days. I'm looking forward to seeing who actually comes out on top because those are three great cornerbacks, and you can use all of them in our defensive schemes. … They've all been improving and making plays."
Clarke has the most experience among the three, although most of it came in one game. Clarke, at one time the No. 5 cornerback on the 2010 depth chart – was pushed into action in the Sugar Bowl when Chekwa went down with injury in the first quarter against Arkansas and Howard was out with cramps.
Howard has been impressed with Clarke's never-ending drive to improve.
"Any little thing he does wrong, he's back in the film room consistently making sure he does what he has to do next time," Howard said. "He's going to ask questions and make sure he's doing the right thing."
Roby has emerged this spring as a contender for a starting spot. He alternated with Clarke on the first-team defense on Saturday and did not look out of place in helping to shut down OSU's receivers.
Finally, Allen has also had a solid spring thus far. The Florida State transfer has been one of several defenders to literally make an impact. He laid one of the biggest hits of the scrimmage on running back Jaamal Berry when he tagged the running back on an attempted screen pass.
"I like his passion," Howard said. "Dionte is a guy who is going to get after it every play. He's going to go out and hit every play. (Cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson) always says, ‘As a corner, you have to be able to go up and tackle.' He brings that element to our team as far as that aggressiveness."