Coaches: Kerry Coombs, CBs (fourth year at OSU); Chris Ash, Safeties (second year at OSU)
2014 BSB Final Grade: B
Entering the year, the secondary was certainly the area of most concern on the defense. That unit was replacing three starters from a 2013 team that underperformed late in the season and was tasked with adapting to the new, more aggressive scheme of co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash.
While there were some hiccups along the way, the unit developed into a ball-hawking group that hauled in 15 interceptions in the Buckeyes’ final nine games, swelling their season total to 25 picks. Ohio State finished 13th in the nation in passing efficiency defense, a vast improvement from the 2013 mark of 83rd.
The tackling in the back end of Ohio State’s defense was a strength this season as sophomore safeties Vonn Bell and Powell finished second and fourth on the team, respectively. Bell led the team with six interceptions while Doran Grant, the corner tasked with shutting down the opposition’s top target for much of the season, finished with five. His counterpart, redshirt freshman Eli Apple, entered the year in a battle for the starting spot with Gareon Conley but clearly separated himself from his classmate. When Conley had to play for him briefly against Michigan State, the drop off was noticeable, and Apple earned freshman All-American honors.
“We really stepped up to the challenge,” Bell said of replacing three starters. “The DBs were challenged more than anybody with the bowl game and the Big Ten Championship last year, how we were the weakest link. When Coach Ash came into the program, he really challenged us in the offseason and our character and our culture, and we really changed that and we hold ourselves accountable now.”
Powell said that the unit improved drastically as the year wore on, specifically citing his own tackling and Bell’s pass coverage as areas of growth throughout the season.
Those steps allowed the Buckeyes to hold their final nine opponents to 214 yards per game through the air. While that number was above the team’s season average, the level of competition – including Oregon’s Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota – validates the performance of the secondary over the second half.
What was a weakness in 2013 turned into one of many strengths for the Buckeyes in 2014.
- 81 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 5 interceptions, 9 pass breakups
13 Eli Apple (6-1, 198, Soph.)
- 53 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3 interceptions, 10 pass breakups, 1 fumble recovery returned for touchdown, 1 forced fumble at field cornerback
11 Vonn Bell (5-11, 210, Jr.)
- 92 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 sack, 6 interceptions, 6 pass breakups, 1 fumble recovery at safety
23 Tyvis Powell (6-3, 208, Jr.)
- 76 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 4 interceptions, 4 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble at safety
16 Cameron Burrows (6-0, 210, Jr.)
- 17 tackles, 2 pass breakups at safety
19 Gareon Conley (6-0, 190, Soph.)
- 16 tackles, 2 pass breakups at corner
1 Erick Smith (6-1, 198, Soph.)
- 13 tackles, 1 interception, 1 fumble recovery at safety
7 Damon Webb (5-10, 190, Soph.)
- 3 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 pass breakup at cornerback in 9 games
2 Marshon Lattimore (6-0, 195, R-Fr.)
- Redshirted in 2014 with hamstring injury
24 Malik Hooker (6-1, 195, R-Fr.)
- Redshirted in 2014
32 Jamel Dean (6-2, 200, Fr.)
- Incoming three-star recruit
12 Doran Grant (co-captain)
Safety might be the deepest position on the field for Ohio State – poor Burrows has the awkward lot to be stuck behind two players with the same eligibility who have edged ahead of him slightly and performed admirably during the 2014 season – so what we can say is the Buckeyes need to find cornerbacks who are ready to play. Obviously that is a pressing issue with Grant’s departure, but Conley pushed Apple for the starting job a season ago and also a lot of talent in Webb and Lattimore (who probably would have played last year were it not for his hamstring injury, which he is still rehabbing). It seems likely the Buckeyes have someone who will be young but ready to go at the spot in 2015, but now is the time to find out.
Player On The Spot
Conley. He seems first in line to take over Grant’s open cornerback job. Conley has the most experience of the bunch and split time with Apple early in the season, though his last experience was a rough one on the field at Michigan State as Apple dealt with injury last year. But he’s a great athlete and clearly has some skills; plus, if he’s not on his game, the Massillon product will be pushed strongly by Webb and Lattimore, once healthy. Both came in highly touted in the class of 2014 and have done little to change that opinion since arrival.
Spring Is A Success If…
The Buckeyes are confident at both corner and nickel. There is little to worry about at safety, as the team has not just Powell and Bell but Burrows and Smith, who could be the next big thing at the position at OSU. Apple could be a future All-American at corner, too, after a standout performance in 2014 that included showing well against Amari Cooper in the Sugar Bowl. That means the Buckeyes have to find someone to take Grant’s spot – and again, there is talent on hand – while also adding enough depth that the nickel spot feels secure. The injury to Armani Reeves hurts there, but Burrows filled the spot some last year and Eric Glover-Williams is said to be tailor-made for it once he arrives in fall.
Spring Is A Failure If…
The Buckeyes suffer any more attrition at corner. With Lattimore out, the only healthy scholarship players are Apple, Conley and Webb. Losing another there would hurt the team’s ability to keep building depth going into fall. There is both talent and depth in the defensive backfield, but corner is the one spot where things need to keep coming along.