Building A Better Buckeye Secondary

What might be the key to Ohio State's reversing its history of postseason misfortunes against the Southeastern Conference? Strong offensive lines and defensive front sevens just might cancel each other out, so the contest could come down to a Buckeye secondary far different from the one that faced Florida last season.

Much of the pregame speculation that the Buckeyes cannot keep up with LSU in Monday night's BCS National Championship Game is a direct result of the whipping Florida put on OSU in last year's event.

The Gators had fewer weapons on offense than does this LSU squad, so what chance could the Buckeyes have?

A better OSU secondary could be the difference.

Gone from the 2006 Big Ten champions are steady seniors Brandon Mitchell and Antonio Smith, while returnee Jamario O'Neal has been relegated to reserve duty this season as a junior.

In their respective places for the '07 conference title winners are Kurt Coleman, Chimdi Chekwa and Anderson Russell.

The group as a whole, with safeties Coleman and Russell and nickelback Checkwa joining holdover cornerbacks Malcolm Jenkins and Donald Washington, has been outstanding this season and could hold the key to halting Ohio State's postseason slide against the SEC at eight games.

The 2006 group posted solid stats, finishing 10th nationally in pass efficiency defense and 30th in yards allowed through the air, but was not the most athletic bunch around, as evidenced by the fact neither were selected in the NFL draft last April.

Smith was a former walk-on who stood 5-9 and played one corner, while the 6-3, 205-pound Mitchell had the build of an NFL safety but could not break into the starting lineup full time until his fifth year in Columbus.

Both were brainy and productive players – Smith played well enough to earn First Team All-Big Ten honors – but neither possessed the talent of their successors.

O'Neal was one the nation's most-sought-after recruits as a senior at Cleveland Glenville three years ago, but his inability to grasp the defense well enough to let loose his considerable physical gifts made him a liability against foes such as Florida and Michigan.

He was asked to start against those teams as a direct result of Russell's late-September knee injury, a setback that derailed what most thought was a promising redshirt freshman season at its midpoint.

In the title game last year, Florida quarterback Chris Leak completed 25 of 36 passes, good for a 69.4 completion percentage that was nearly 7 percent higher than he posted in his first 12 games of the season.

Leak's success was at least partly attributable to Ohio State's electing to defend him with a soft zone for most of the night, a strategy that did little to help stop the Gator ground attack from churning out 156 yards, either.

Fast forward a year and the Buckeyes have a defense ranked No. 1 in the nation in both pass efficiency and yards allowed through the air. The reason for the improvement lies both in athleticism and experience, components that free the coaches to draw up a more diversified overall defensive attack as well.

"We have a lot more versatility this year," Jenkins said. "We have a lot more leeway. We can play a lot more man because the corners have a little bit more experience. The safeties are doing a good job of getting pressure and doing things. Our D-line is helping us out, too."

The pass rush is better statistically – the Buckeyes have 42 sacks through 12 games as opposed to 38 in 13 contests a season ago – but the numbers do not tell the full story.

Last season the defensive line had 29 sacks, or 76.3 percent of the total. This year with more blitzing on the menu, the split is almost even between the front four and the back seven: 21.5 of the Buckeyes' 42 sacks are from defensive linemen.

"We can blitz a lot more and do a lot more things because we know the pressure can get there," Jenkins said. "The corners aren't out there to dry. We only have to cover for about three seconds and if the ball's not out, it's a sack. I think the entire defense has helped the secondary out as far as what we can do."

Jenkins, in his second full year as a starter, said Coleman and Chekwa represent a definite upgrade in ability from last season.

"Kurt and Chimdi are a great input to our defense," Jenkins said. "Kurt is a great athlete who is a ballhawk. He is always around the ball and can make tackles. Chimdi has speed and can recover very well so I think it's something that definitely helps our defense."

Coleman, a sophomore who played only sparingly last season after ranking as a four-star prospect in high school, agreed with the notion that this team is more athletic than its predecessor.

"And I think we have a better understanding of the game as a defensive backfield," he said. "We've done a lot more studying together. Last year we had a lot of upperclassmen who just kind of knew what they were doing and the younger guys didn't but now we're all one and it's working out great."

The only dissenter who was surveyed turned out to be Russell. He had no doubts that this secondary is superior overall, but he was not willing to attribute the improvement to sheer talent.

"We're more experienced," he said. "And we've all had a chance to learn the game a lot more this year."

While the '06 unit included the two seniors, neither had spent even half a season as a starter.

The only area in which this secondary has not outperformed the 2006 version is in causing turnovers. Last season OSU intercepted 21 passes, a number that has plummeted to 10 this year.

"Early on especially we dropped quite a few interceptions," OSU defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said. "For whatever reason we probably could have forced some more turnovers but that's how you get turnovers – you make those plays. Unfortunately we didn't at times. It's an area that we would like to do better."

In relation to the title game, however, the stat again might not mean too much: None of those 21 picks last season came after Nov. 11.

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