Ohio State Football Spring Position Battles: Defensive Backs

Our series documenting the key position battles that will be waged during Ohio State’s spring practice starts with the defensive backs.

Ohio State’s spring practice is fast approaching. The Buckeyes have already started training for the 2016 season and the team will take the field for the first time March 8. With nine underclassmen and a number of seniors departing from the 2015 team that went 12-1, there are questions surrounding plenty of position groups for the 2016 Buckeyes. BuckeyeSports.com is taking a look at those positions and how they might be sorted out between now and the Ohio State April 16 Spring Game.

The Departed: The defensive backs room will look very different this spring than it did in 2015 as three of the four starters on the back end have moved on. Tyvis Powell, Vonn Bell and Eli Apple all left Ohio State with eligibility on the table and while some attrition was surely expected, the mass exodus of defensive backs likely wasn't.

While all three departures are impactful, Bell's may be the most. The safety started every game each of the past two seasons, totaling 91 tackles in 2014 and 65 last season. Powell appeared in every Ohio State game the past three years and, like Bell, started each of the past 28. Apple started alongside Doran Grant in 2014 before taking over boundary corner responsibilities last season and leaves Ohio State with two years of eligibility remaining as just a redshirt sophomore.

The Contenders: Gareon Conley, the one returning starter along the back four, has the boundary corner spot locked up. The expected leader among defensive backs, Conley started all 13 games for the Buckeyes last season recording 49 tackles with two interceptions, four quarterback hurries and 0.5 sacks.

The other cornerback spot will likely come down to a trio of players with limited experience. Damon Webb is the elder statesman of that group as he will be a junior in 2016. During the 2015 season he played in seven games, though he missed time due to an unexplained suspension. He recorded 10 tackles for the Buckeyes.

Two players who will push Webb are Eric Glover-Williams and Denzel Ward, each of whom saw the field as a true freshman. Ward, who has been lauded for his speed, played in 11 games in his first year on campus. While that time largely came on special teams, he was often in defensive packages during blowouts. Glover-Williams is considered a great athlete and played largely on special teams for the 2016 Buckeyes. Sophomore Damon Arnette will also push for time, likely in a reserve capacity.

The safety positions are even more in flux given the steady play of Bell and Powell over the last two seasons and the injuries suffered by their most likely replacements. Erick Smith drew rave reviews last season before suffering a knee injury and his availability for spring ball is unknown. Smith played in six games last season, recording six tackles.

Also dealing with injuries is Cam Burrows. After playing cornerback in 2013 Burrows saw time for the Buckeyes at safety in 2014. He played in just three games last season as injuries limited his ability. While the health of Burrows and Smith remains up in the air, they are the most experienced safeties on the roster. 

An intriguing Buckeye to watch this spring is Malik Hooker. After taking a redshirt in 2014 Hooker played in every game last season and made 10 tackles. Unlike Smith and Burrows, the redshirt sophomore will be completely healthy this spring. 

It's also possible that one of the players vying for a cornerback role, most likely Damon Webb, slides to safety to get the best possible secondary on the field.

How It Might Shake Out: I think that Ward overtakes Webb as the second corner this spring, leaving Webb in the third cornerback role. The safety position is more murky and likely won't sort itself out until fall because of injuries, but I'm a believer in a healthy Erick Smith for one of the spots

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