Safeties First When It Comes To Inexperience

Ohio State safeties coach Paul Haynes knows it's no secret he has a young group, but the coach doesn't seem too worried about his unit's green nature. From Anderson Russell's speed to Kurt Coleman's play-making abilities to Jamario O'Neal's summer improvement, Haynes likes what he has as the 2007 opener looms.

If the prototypical safety is athletic, fast and physical, then Paul Haynes must like his group.

Those are the words the third-year safeties coach used to describe the five players vying for playing time in his unit. Noticeably missing was the word "experienced."

Of the five, only one – Nick Patterson – has started a season opener for the Scarlet and Gray. None has started an entire season, and the presumed starters in Anderson Russell and Kurt Coleman combined for 111 minutes last year – or as many as they can expect to combine for in the first three games of 2007.

Still, expecting Haynes to worry would be folly. He thinks his group has the tools necessary to be a dependable unit on a defense of which big things are expected.

"When you look at them, they're big, they're strong, they're fast and they're physical," Haynes said. "Those are the things you look at at safety. Now you just have to find out what they know and let them play."

The hopes might be highest for a man known as "100 Percent." Russell earned that nickname for his trait of going all-out on every play, but that number has a special meaning now for the Georgian – it stands for just how healthy the sophomore is.

His return from a torn ACL suffered against Iowa has been well documented. The 6-0, 190-pounder should be in the starting lineup as the free safety come Sept. 1, a welcome return to Haynes, who agreed with defensive coordinator Jim Heacock's assessment that losing Russell a season ago was devastating.

"He has great range," Haynes said. "He can get from point A to point B very, very fast. I think also, too, when you look at it, Brandon Mitchell was comfortable at strong safety (last year). He finally got a spot he felt comfortable at and he felt comfortable with Anderson. Then when Anderson got hurt, we had to move him over to free and put somebody else in there at strong.

"That was more devastating than people know, not because of even just the person but just switching guys around and all those things."

Even more remarkable is the fact that Russell hadn't even played in the defensive backfield before coming to Ohio State. At Atlanta Marist, Russell was a tailback, averaging 8.4 yards per carry as a senior. His quick maturation has impressed his position coach.

"To be able to come here as a redshirt freshman and start at safety, that just says enough about the kid and his work ethic, his everything," Haynes said. "When he first got here, he was all over the place as far as backpedaling and things like that because he'd never done it. But he worked, he worked and he worked and his transformation was unbelievable.

"He's got a high ceiling. The sky is the limit for him because he has so much more potential to grow and learn the defense. He's still doing that every day."

Coleman has earned a reputation as a player who is impossible to keep off the field in his short time at Ohio State. A four-star prospect when he committed, Coleman earned special teams work in all but one game last year as a true freshman after an impressive interception during the spring game in 2006. The next spring saw his star as a playmaker rise, so much so that the 5-11, 185-pounder should get the chance to start from game one.

"He's very instinctive," Haynes said. "It's something that is not taught. I can't take credit for it. It's something that he has. He just has it. When a kid has that, he can play a little bit more confident. I can't sit there and say what it is. I know he's very instinctive, and he has good range, too. He puts himself into position to make plays."

That is not to say that Jamario O'Neal is the odd man out. Many observers were dissatisfied with O'Neal's performance after taking over for the injured Russell and starting the final eight games. The former Cleveland Glenville star made 30 tackles and intercepted a pass during his sophomore campaign of '06, but his tackling needed some improvement, something Haynes said he has worked on during the summer.

"He has done definitely done a good job this fall improving himself in tackling and doing a good job in tackling," Haynes said. "That's one of the things that he and I talked about in the offseason – ‘You just have to become a better tackler.' He's worked on it and he's done a great job this far in fall camp."

Also in the mix are Aaron Gant, who made 10 tackles while playing sparingly as a freshman last season, and Patterson, who saw his playing time rapidly disappear after starting last year's opener.

"We just go out every day and just compete for the spot and make plays," O'Neal said. "The person who makes the most plays is going to get the spot, so that's what I'm doing."

Whichever players do get on the field, they know they have a long line of standout safeties – ranging from Jack Tatum to Donte Whitner – to live up to, and they plan on doing so.

"Ohio State has a long history of great safeties and I think this year's group will be equal to the task of living up to that history," Russell said.

Buckeye Sports Top Stories