The back end of the Ohio State defense is notable for its absences. Gone are 227 tackles, 17 interceptions and 77 games of experience.
In replacing safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell, the Buckeyes re trying to replicate that level of play. As the coaching staff is fond of saying, the expectation doesn’t change.
While Ohio State currently has two players leading for the safety positions in Malik Hooker and Damon Webb, the depth chart is far from solidified. What is clear, however, is what new safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano expects from players at that position.
“Go hard. We can clean up the rest if you’ll go incredibly hard and then play physical,” he said. “A huge part of defensive football is tackling. Get them on the ground, either that or get the ball away from them, one or the other. If you can’t get them on the ground you’re never going to have a very good defense. So you better be able to tackle. Run really hard, four-to-six, A-to-B, and tackle.”
Unsurprisingly given their friendship and the praise Schiano had for Urban Meyer and his coaching culture, what Schiano wants out of his safety mirrors what the head coach consistently calls for from the team.
As for now, Hooker and Webb seem to be the ones going the hardest as they are currently running with the first team. Cam Burrows and Erick Smith are working with the second team with Burrows joining the first team in nickel situations.
“It’s a competition every day, we’re just going out there and competing and giving our best effort and making plays,” Hooker said. “So right now we’re still not sure, still filling in and trying to figure out the plays and stuff like that.”
Hooker earned his first team spot, precarious as it may be, in part with a solid showing in spring. The redshirt sophomore finished the spring game with a game-high 10 tackles and two interceptions, one of which he returned 82 yards for a touchdown.
Webb, meanwhile, played in four games as a true freshman and four as a sophomore in 2015, recording 13 total tackles over the eight games. After starting at the nickelback position for the first two games last season, Webb was suspended for six games for undisclosed reasons.
Now converted to safety, Webb said he’s moved past the suspension and clearly the coaching staff has as well.
“I think Malik Hooker has shown that he has the ability to be a really good player. Now he needs to do it consistently. I think Damon Webb has shown that in spurts. He needs to do it consistently,” Schiano said. “I’d say the rest of them are just a notch below, it’s not very far though. The thing I like is they’re just working their tails off. They’re trying hard, they’re competing. Usually when you get a group like that usually the cream will rise to the top and we’ll find four guys that we can go in there with the two deep.
“Right now the whole thing is wide open.”
As for the rest that Schiano referred to, Burrows, the elder statesman in the room, says he knows how to approach the competition even if he’s battling from behind. Simply focus on what you can control.
“Look at it like somebody in a race,” he said. “If they’re looking around, what are they doing? Losing.”