Safeties Want To Be Big-Play Men

Last year's Ohio State defense wasn't quite up to the usual high Silver Bullet standards, and one reason was the Buckeyes couldn't convert as many turnovers and big plays as in some years past. That was especially true of the team's safeties, who hope to turn things around in that realm in 2012.

When Christian Bryant looks back at the stat sheet from the 2011 season, the Ohio State safety can't help but shake his head.

Bryant and fellow starting safeties C.J. Barnett and Orhian Johnson combined for one tackle for loss, one forced fumble and five interceptions. Suffice it to say Bryant would have liked to have seen more impact out of the safety crew.

"I left a couple of plays on the field," Bryant admitted, and his position-mates would likely agree.

For comparison's sake, former OSU star Kurt Coleman posted 2.5 TFL, a sack, five interceptions, a fumble recovery and three forced fumbles by himself during his senior campaign of 2009.

That's one reason Coleman is the recent gold standard when it comes to making plays from the safety position, but it's fair to say the Dayton-area player had to grow into that reputation as well.

As a sophomore in 2007, Coleman had no interceptions and zero fumble recoveries as a first-year starter, finishing with 3.5 TFL, a sack and a lone forced fumble even as the Buckeyes advanced to the national championship game. A year later, Coleman – a noted playmaker in high school at Clayton Northmont – upped his totals to four TFL, a sack, four picks and forced fumble before exploding as a senior.

In other words, it takes some time and some experience for the ability to make game-changing plays shine through. As a result, the Buckeye safeties feel like there will be major improvement in that regard when the fall rolls around.

"Last year, I was still kind of a younger guy, kind of learning," said Bryant, who along with Barnett was a first-year starter a season ago. "Now I'm going into my junior year and I feel like I can make a big impact. I'm going to bring a lot to the defense this year."

One way to make a quick improvement would be to make those turnovers that seem placed on the table. Too many times a year ago, an Ohio State defensive player had a ball thrown right to him – often with nothing but green space ahead – only to fail to haul in the misguided pass, one reason the Buckeyes finished with 13 a pedestrian picks.

That stood out on the film to new safeties coach Everett Withers, who already sees the ability to rectify that situation with his charges.

"A lot of times you have that, and people see that in the secondary a lot of times," Withers said. "They say, 'Well, they dropped a lot of balls. They dropped a lot of balls.' I've been places where you drop a lot of balls early in the year or you didn't make a lot of plays early in the year and then they came in bunches later in the year.

"I think just having confidence that you're going to be in the right spot and that you can go make a play, I think that's probably got a lot to do with it."

Bryant and Barnett figure to return as starters in 2012 – they were given the top spots on the depth chart released Wednesday – so that experience should help. After all, it's no mistake that Johnson, who started in 2010 and half of last year, led the position with three picks a season ago. (He figures to see plenty of duty as well.)

There are other reasons for encouragement. The safeties have been designated "free" and "strong" this year rather than sharing halves of the field like a season ago, and Barnett could be more likely to see time near the line of scrimmage as the free safety. His increased presence in stopping opposing run games could result in more chances for strips and TFL.

Meanwhile, the winner-loser mentality instilled on the team this spring meant making plays against the other side was of the utmost importance, an aggressive mentality that figures to transfer to the field against other squads.

"It makes it a lot more fun," Barnett said. "Just going out there and competing against the other side of the ball every single day is always great. It's a great way to help you get better."

Bryant has added the game has slowed down for him, which could help him return to the form that made him a threat on both sides of the ball at Cleveland Glenville. There, he picked off five passes as a senior and returned two for scores, and to get back to that type of impact, he worked with fellow Tarblooder Donte Whitner and Malcolm Jenkins this offseason.

"They've been helping me a little bit in the film room," he said. "I've been staying on the Jugs machines and doing DB drills every day. I talked to Ted (Ginn Jr.) and Donte and Jermale Hines and all those guys I went to high school with. They just told me you can't stop. It's constant work every day until I get to where I need to be."

Where he hopes to be is with the ball in his hands – the more times, the better – in 2012.

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