One Small Move For Secondary

Last season, Ohio State started the same defensive backs for all 13 games en route to a berth in the national title game. All four of those players return, but there is at least one change in how they will be utilized. Find out what that means for Anderson Russell and Jamario O'Neal as the Buckeyes work through spring practice.

Anderson Russell looked a little despondent, if not slightly angry.

One season ago, Russell was the team's starting free safety for all 13 games. He finished the year as the team's fourth-leading tackler, racking up 63 tackles and breaking up five passes from his spot in the secondary. But when Ohio State switched to its nickel defense, it was Russell who literally became the star.

As the Buckeyes bring in another defensive back and remove a linebacker to better counter passing situations, it was Russell who was tasked with being an extra-important playmaker dubbed the "Star" – the player who is asked to make plays both in the secondary and at the line of scrimmage.

Although OSU returns all four of its starters in the secondary in its base defense, the team is undergoing a change at the star position.

Now, when the Buckeyes utilize their nickel package, Russell is remaining at free safety. In his place at the star position, a battle is being waged between senior Jamario O'Neal and sophomore Chimdi Chekwa.

For now, it appears O'Neal – the player Russell beat out for the spot one season ago – is the leader.

"He's been stepping up for us," Russell said. "There's been a lot of competition at that spot."

It appears to be the lone shakeup for a defensive secondary that, when in nickel coverage, returns four players who started all 13 games one season ago. That group is led by senior cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, who turned down the chance for millions of dollars in the NFL to return for one more season in the Scarlet and Gray.

Jenkins also plays a role in the secondary when it comes to the nickel coverage. Although he is pegged as OSU's top shut-down cornerback, Jenkins would slide to safety to vacate the position opened up by Russell moving to star. The move was designed to let the Buckeyes put their five best defensive backs on the field, regardless of position.

Jenkins finished the year with four interceptions – all nabbed from the safety spot. But this spring, he is staying solely at cornerback.

Depending on how things progress, it could be a permanent position for when the season comes around.

"We're just working on different guys and seeing (how they do," OSU safeties coach Paul Haynes said. "We can always go back to that, but right now we're just trying to work on different guys for different spots and seeing who the best five are."

Haynes said he was pleased with how the switch worked for the Buckeyes last season, but Jenkins said he has no problems staying at his original cornerback spot.

"I like corner more, probably because it's my natural position, but safety is fun too because it's easy and I got all my interceptions last year at safety," he said.

Behind Russell, Washington, Jenkins and safety Kurt Coleman, the Buckeyes have several young players vying for playing time. One of them is sophomore Eugene Clifford, a highly touted player who saw limited time during his freshman year for a variety of reasons including both injury and a suspension for the team's game against LSU for the national championship.

After playing some cornerback one season ago, the decision was made prior to spring practice to put Clifford back at his natural safety position. Paul Haynes cited depth as the primary reason for the switch.

"I think he can (help us)," Haynes said. "It goes back to him being a good athlete. He's got great range. He's not afraid to hit. He brings something to the table."

Clifford is one of a handful of players to be working with the second-team defense right now. The list includes Chekwa, Andre Amos, Shaun Lane and James Scott as well as two linebackers – Tyler Moeller and Jermale Hines – who have seen extended playing time in nickel situations.

Despite the apparent depth, Haynes said the Buckeyes will not likely go to a situation of situational substitution.

Although the starters appear to be well-established, Haynes said he does not do things differently to encourage the younger players to stay focused.

"I think they've still got a lot of football to learn," he said. "I think the reps and the things like that are what they still need a lot of, and the experience of seeing everything. Competition makes those front guys better, so I don't want them to slack too much. I want them to go gain that spot."


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