Buckeyes Setting Nickel As Opener Nears

While much of the focus this fall has been on the Ohio State defense trying to find three linebackers, there's also the matter of trying to settle on who will man the "star" position in the nickel defense. OSU's coaches talk about that and which linebackers will play nickel in this update.

For the past few seasons, the "star" position has become one sort of synonymous with the Ohio State defenses as the Buckeyes have looked for ways to combat the proliferation of spread offenses across the college football landscape.

But as the 2012 season nears, there simply hadn't been much talk about what has become of the hybrid linebacker/safety spot played by the likes of Antonio Smith, Jermale Hines and Tyler Moeller – often with great effect – over the past few campaigns.

Discussion about it was so muted that when one reporter tried to ask defensive coordinator Luke Fickell about the position last week, Fickell thought the reporter was asking which defensive player was going to take on a starring role this season.

"I was going to say, what the hell?" said Fickell, who as someone who favors team effort over individual play wasn't pleased by his original understanding of the question.

One reason, perhaps, for the confusion is the team hasn't done a lot of nickel work during camp as it has tried to hone its base defense, which is now under the direction of Fickell and safeties coach/co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers.

While the star position has been out of sight, it hasn't been out of mind, however. The spot still exists in the defense drawn up by Fickell and Withers, and it should be a part of the OSU defense when the Buckeyes face throw-happy Miami in the season opener Saturday in Ohio Stadium.

"I think we'll be in it a fair amount," Withers said. "How much I couldn't tell you because you never know what the offensive plan is. I think the offense kind of at times dictates how much nickel you play. We could put nickel out there against two running backs, but that wouldn't be what we want to do. We wouldn't want to take a linebacker off the field for that. It's really predicated on how much three- and four- and five-wides we see."

However, it's still not clear which player will be manning that spot come game time.

"We don't know, we're kind of bouncing it around," Fickell said. "Christian Bryant played a lot of the nickel spot for us last year, and we're going to try to get some Corey Brown in there and get some young guys a chance to have the opportunity to move around a little bit. Nothing like that is set in stone yet."

While there's no cemented decision made, it appears there are two likely scenarios. The first includes keeping the team's two starting safeties – Bryant and C.J. Barnett – on the field while Brown comes on to play the star role.

"He's had a pretty consistent time from the spring through the summer and also through camp," Withers said of Brown, who is coming back from major knee surgery. "He's shown that he can handle a lot of that load at nickel. He's definitely improved since I've been here."

The other scenario includes bringing senior Orhian Johnson onto the field to play safety while Bryant slides down to the nickel spot. Ohio State used that strategy often a year ago to take advantage of the physical nature of Bryant.

"It really hasn't changed that much from previous years," Bryant said about the star before listing off why he's suited for it. "Just being physical. My speed. Just playing fast. That's really all you have to do to play the nickel. You've got to be able to cover man to man."

One thing that's not up for debate comes at the linebacker spot. Curtis Grant, who has moved into the starting middle linebacker position, will come off the field while weakside man Ryan Shazier and senior strongside ‘backer Etienne Sabino stay put.

That decision makes sense on multiple levels. Shazier appears to be the most athletic, dynamic player Ohio State has at the position – important given the number of receivers that will likely be on the other side of the line when OSU goes nickel – while Sabino is the elder statesman of the linebacker position and will make the play calls upon moving over to MLB.

"I like it," the senior said. "I'm going to play my heart out."

Withers likes what he has when that group sees the field.

"Obviously guys that can play in space, guys that can pressure and blitz, guys that can obviously cover one-on-one," he said. "We feel like those guys give us a good (look)."

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