Buckeyes Look To Enhance Nickel, Dime

Ohio State showed some new personnel groupings on defense this spring as it looks to strengthen its ability to shut down opposing team's passing games. What is the Buckeyes' coaching staff trying to accomplish and how is it going about it? BuckeyeSports.com has the answer.

When Luke Fickell took over as the Ohio State defensive coordinator last season, some fans wondered whether the team's defensive philosophy would change much.

After all, Fickell hadn't run the show before, though he did spend the 2005-10 seasons helping run the defense under Jim Heacock, one of the top coordinators in the game.

When it came down to it, the Buckeyes – with help from new co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers, who was brought in to provide a steady hand – did make a few changes in scheme, outlined here by frequent board poster Ross Fulton. But in the end, the personnel used was largely the same as it was in the Heacock era.

That was not the case when the Buckeyes got back to action this spring, though, with one major change taking place in the way the Scarlet and Gray approached passing downs. More than once in spring, Ohio State showed a dime look with six defensive backs, something that was seen rarely if ever under Heacock.

The rationale is simple – the more players the Buckeyes can get on the field to cover receivers, the better.

"I think the benefit is the more fast guys you can put on the field against spread offensive teams, particularly in passing situations, the greater the chance you have to play multiple coverages," cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said. "You can play more man-to-man and you can rush the passer more effectively. If it's third-and-9 and you don't anticipate they're going to run the two-back run game at you, you can get some fast guys out there who can cover."

So what has changed from a year ago for the defensive coaches to branch things out? For one thing, Ohio State simply has more time to install the packages. A year ago, the new staff – highlighted by a pair of first-year secondary coaches in Coombs and Withers – was simply trying to establish its base tenets, all while getting the team to adjust to the high-intensity way in which it practices.

"You don't want to be installing those packages during the fall," said Withers, who oversees the safeties. "You want to have those things already in place, and I think that's what we're trying to do is have those packages already available to us so if we need them in the fall, we have them."

That wasn't the case a year ago, as the Buckeyes weren't able to truly get into more varied defenses until later in the campaign, a move somewhat brought on by early struggles.

"I don't think there's any doubt we thought we could use a little bit more of the nickel and dime packages that we started to use a little bit later in the year," Withers said. "I think we thought if we could have had those available to us early on, we would have been a little bit more flexible in what we could have done."

Ohio State should also have better depth in 2013. Three of four starting members of the secondary return in cornerback Bradley Roby and safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett, but there are other bodies who can step onto the field and make an impact.

The list includes redshirt freshman Tyvis Powell, who has moved into the No. 1 "star" role – the hybrid safety/linebacker who must be able to play in the box and in space – as well as senior Corey Brown and veteran Adam Griffin. Powell was backed up this spring by Griffin, while the son of the two-time Heisman Trophy winner and Brown both were deputized at times when OSU went to six defensive backs.

In addition, Ohio State expects to get Najee Murray and Devan Bogard back from injury for the fall, while incoming freshmen like Vonn Bell, Christopher Worley and Jayme Thompson could find early duty as players at either the star or in the dime package.

"We didn't have enough last year to do that," Coombs said. "We think we will (this year). That's another expectation on the part of Najee and Devan coming back healthy and the addition of the freshman kids that are coming in."

The setup is slightly different than what the Buckeyes had under Heacock, who generally used a few specific personnel packages – a base 4-3; a nickel look with four down linemen, two linebackers and a star; and a dime package that utilized five defensive backs but made changes up front with three down linemen and a "Viper."

The six defensive backs, then, is an obvious change, one that should give the Buckeyes more speed and coverage abilities. Withers said that while the star is a hybrid linebacker/safety with responsibilities similar to OSU's strongside linebacker in the base defense (the position has traditionally been filled either by a safety or a physical corner), the sixth DB has responsibilities similar to the weakside linebacker and must be able to function in space.

The setup also allows the Buckeyes to perhaps better disguise blitzes, as the approach often led to pressure on the quarterback in spring with blitzers coming from unique angles.

Factor everything together and the package looks like it is around to stay, especially in an era in which matchups are king.

"I think it gives us some flexibility and more ability to blitz and do some things," Withers said. "It obviously gives us some availability to cover in some more man-to-man situations. I just thinks it gives us some more flexibility to match up with some of the more spread-type offenses."

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