Ohio State safeties embracing new roles

Cornerback skills are going to be essential for Ohio State safeties moving forward, and the candidates say they are ready for the challenge this fall.

Given how the offseason has played out so far, the third year of the Urban Meyer era at Ohio State might just be called "The Revenge of the Safeties."

Not only will the Buckeyes have a new starting pair at that all-important position, they will be something more than the last line of defense in the new scheme installed by new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash.

It figures to make for an interesting experiment at Ohio State, where strong defense has been a tradition for many years, but the past 20 have been characterized by two distinct styles. Prior to the bend-but-don'-t break units of the Jim Tressel era were in-your-face, press defenses of the second half of John Cooper's tenure in Columbus.

Fans might be happier with the ultimate results of the more recent years (seven Big Ten titles, one national championship), but there is still a certain romance for the units of the late 1990s that were the first to become known as the Silver Bullets.

Those defenses coordinated by former Buckeye player Fred Pagac Sr. had stars at many positions, but nothing rivaled cornerback, where a parade of first-round NFL draft picks included Shawn Springs, Antoine Winfield, Ahmed Plummer and Nate Clements. They provided the signature of the defense with their ability to take opposing receivers out of games while the rest dominated in the box.

Those defenses operated in a different era of offense, though, and in fact the rise of the spread was a direct result of their success at loading the box and attacking pro-style offenses with deep pass-drops and longer-developing routes. In the decade-plus since, offenses have continued to evolve and become more efficient, particularly in the short passing game. Defenses have been slow to react, though it appears across the country there is a movement to try to start dictating the action again.

That requires not only a pair of corners who can lock up receives on the outside but also someone to contend with a slot receiver, tight end or back out of the backfield. The running quarterback -- nearly ubiquitous now after being something of a novelty for many years -- also changes the equation.

Former OSU safeties coach Everett Withers made a point of explaining that both to reporters and at the OSU coaches clinic prior to last season. He also said on more than one occasion in a perfect world he would like to play man and attack the line of scrimmage but stressed concern about having personnel throughout the defense that can handle that strategy, including safeties and linebackers.

Withers has since moved on to become head coach at James Madison, and his replacement sounds intent on making sure the Buckeyes play to their personnel but do so more aggressively.

Without a doubt, all involved would like to see fewer short passes completed by Ohio State opponents, whose 143 passes of 10-plus yards ranked 122nd nationally last season per CFBstats.com.

Ash's new quarters scheme installed this spring is designed to takes away some of the easy throws quarterbacks have been able to make in order to pick up cheap yards, and safety play will be key as they will be asked not only to provide support over the top against cornerbacks but also pick up man-to-man coverage at times.

While a daunting task, Ohio State hopes to have found prototypical candidates in sophomores Vonn Bell, Tyvis Powell and Cam Burrows.

The latter two began their careers as cornerbacks, which is no coincidence. Burrows has been the subject of speculation about whether or not he would play cornerback or safety in college since he was a highly regarded prospect at Trotwood (Ohio) Madison, but this spring he did not sound like he was bothered by where he is on the field. He just wants to be on it somewhere.

"It's a big change for me, but I'm still a DB," he said. "I can still move and my hips are still good, so Coach Ash is doing a great job of coaching. He's a great coach, and everything is going good."

He added that the free safety is "more of a corner-type player. He's in passing defense." 

Powell started most of last season at the hybrid Star position before moving to safety for the finale in the Orange Bowl. He was replaced by Bell, giving both a variety of experiences for the year.

Now they have a new scheme to work within, but it sounds like one perfectly suited to their skills.

"Coach Ash is a very knowledgeable guy," Powell said. "He's very confident in the things he does, like when we were scrimmaging each other in the spring he would come up and say, 'When you see this, it's 100 percent right. I've studied it.' And when I would go out there and pay attention to it I saw exactly what he said was going to happen, so he's very confident in that."

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