Ohio State was a vastly different team on defense in 2014, as opposed to the previous two seasons under Urban Meyer, and the most significant position group upgrade occurred with the defensive backs. After being a liability earlier, this group became a ball-hawking, sure tackling, outfit.
What was the major change? It really wasn't personnel, as most every starter returned save for Bradley Roby. The biggest factor in the improvement was the addition of defensive coordinator Chris Ash. He not only took over the defense from Everett Withers, but also coached both the safeties and cornerbacks. Without Ash, there would be no championship rings on anyone's fingers at Ohio State.
Once again, most of the starters return for the Buckeye backline, but the loss of Doran Grant will be big. Who stood out last week as players that will be counted upon this coming season?
Vonn Bell. Safety. Rossville (GA). Has really impressed this spring, and has taken his game to the next level. On the field, and in a leadership role. The switch to Ash, where the safeties need to be able to play in man coverage, was a lifesaver and a career-builder for Bell. I first saw Bell at the Under Armour game, and he definitely appeared to be a very talented player, but a little light in the weight department. He is still not a thumper back there, but his athletic ability is off the charts. His first start against Clemson was a game where he made a lot of mistakes, which was to be expected against that talented offense. The leaping interception was a play that very few defensive backs on the Ohio State team could have physically made, and that showed me all I needed to see. An inexperienced guy that has talent is someone you live with, as he gets experience. I would have no patience for an experienced, but less talented player. Hence, I would have played Bell over Pittsburgh Brown. Now that he has a year under his belt, Bell should be a force this season at safety.
Tyvis Powell. Safety. Bedford. As a player, Powell has had his ups and downs on the field, but that will always be secondary for me. The nice thing about Tyvis Powell is that the person people think he is, is EXACTLY who he is. That's such a rarity in sports with players and coaches, where supposed jerks are actually great people, and sometimes that person people all love might not be who the media portrays them to be. Tyvis Powell is who you think he is. And he has never changed since I met him as a high school junior. Powell has great size and length, and is an extremely hard worker. Is he the fastest safety? No. Always take the right angles? No. A sure-fire NFL guy like many of his teammates? Maybe not. But Tyvis is a guy that every coach in the country would love to have on their team. He plays his tail off, loves to compete, loves to win, and represents the program in the right way. Maybe his greatest strength is the ability to make a big play when his team needs it most.
Erick Smith. Safety. Glenville. Saw him before he played a down of varsity football, and the talent was evident, even though he was overshadowed by Marshon Lattimore early on. It's going to be hard to keep him off the field this year, even with two starters returning. There has to be a role for someone this good, and seeing him break on a pass and break it up last Saturday was all I needed to see. While Smith can cover, he is a hitter and a player that can cause turnovers. Could he step in for Powell or Bell, should they get hurt? Without question. Can he play the "star" role? Not so sure in the Ash defense, where he wants a cornerback as the nickel, but Smith might be able to do it. It might not be this year, but at some point Erick Smith is going to be a starter, and a star.
Eli Apple. Cornerback. Voorhees (NJ). Went from a guy the coaches were worried would never contribute, to a future high NFL draft pick once an illness was diagnosed during his freshman season. By the end of the year, Apple was playing as well as Doran Grant. It's not inconceivable that Apple could leave for the NFL after this season. He has length, size, hip turn and the ability to tackle. Should he stay for his senior season, this guy is captain material. If you aren't familiar with the relationship between Eli and his father, Tim Apple, do a search and read about this situation. Will help you understand the type of person Eli is, and why he is so well liked. Set to have a monster season in 2015.
Gareon Conley. Cornerback. Massillon. Saw him as a junior and liked him, but never viewed him as a Michigan/Ohio State recruit. Fast forward to his senior season, and I was pushing him hard to the Under Armour folks as a player for their game. He has Bradley Roby type skills, with speed, length, hip recovery and ball skills. Does he have that "edge" that all great players have? I think so. He has struggled off and on this spring, but was really good last Saturday. He had a few pass breakups, and came up with a big end zone interception. Was not ready to play last year, and the hope is the extra year has him ready to go because he gets first shot at Grant's position. Gareon has enough pure talent to succeed, just needs to get stronger to be able to help against the run game.
Damon Webb. Cornerback. Cass Tech (MI). I took the picture to the left when I saw Webb as a high school sophomore playing wide receiver at a camp in Cleveland. I liked him, but wasn't blown away by his skills at wideout. Fast forward to Ohio State's summer camp a year later, and he was now a cornerback. And the top one-on-one cover person in camp. The wide receiver days were over. Has great skills to play cornerback, but lacks blazing speed. That can be overcome by technique and anticipation, so Webb could still end up being the starter this coming season. Bradley Roby could get out of position, but had the catchup speed to overrun his mistakes. Webb cannot do that, and always has to be in the right position to succeed. He should be on the field this season in some role.
Malik Hooker. Safety. New Castle (PA). A lot of times when I'm at a camp, game, or practice, some player will do something that makes everyone say "Who was that"? Last Saturday, Hooker had a leaping pass breakup that had the player covering ten yards in a few strides, then twisting his body and breaking up the play without interfering with the receiver. Like Vonn Bell against Clemson, it was a play not every defensive back could have made. Does Hooker know the defense? Can he make these "wow" plays, but also be steady, solid and consistent play after play? I do not know that. Does he have more physical ability than Powell, in terms of speed, quickness, leaping ability and hip turn? Yes, he does. Hooker's day is coming, assuming he works his tail off and does everything the coaches ask of him. The talent is there, and he has enough to succeed at Ohio State.
Didn't see much out of Cameron Burrows and Marshon Lattimore is still hurt, but I think a lot of both players. There is reason to think both will contribute at Ohio State before their time is up.