Safety Depth Not A Concern To Haynes

Ohio State has been stockpiling defensive backs for the past few years, and the result is a full depth chart at the safety position. Safeties coach Paul Haynes seems to like what he has, and progress made during the spring by a number of his charges has improved a unit already returning two starters.

On the Ohio State football team, there are positions of obvious depth and positions where that might not be the case.

At places like linebacker and running back, there are talented players some might like to see who might not get too much time to shine this year because of the All-America candidates ahead of them in players like Chris Wells and James Laurinaitis.

While safety might not immediately come to mind, Ohio State has recruited a number of defensive back prospects during the past few years, and every scholarship safety from last season is back on the 2008 squad. Behind starters Kurt Coleman and Anderson Russell is a gaggle of talented players in Jamario O'Neal, Eugene Clifford, Aaron Gant, Nick Patterson, Nate Oliver and Rocco Pentello who have had varying levels of on-field success during their time in Columbus.

But the good news is safeties coach Paul Haynes seems to have a high opinion of those players stuck behind Coleman and Russell, two solid players during their first year as starters in 2007. When asked which of the younger players might be in for some playing time, Haynes had a quick answer.

"I think all those guys," Haynes said. "Eugene Clifford is doing a good job for us. You even see things out of Nate Oliver and Rocco. The big thing is you just want to see in those guys is just baby steps."

Those steps seem to be coming faster and faster for both younger and older members of the group. For instance, take Jamario O'Neal, a player who is in his senior year as a Buckeye after coming in as a consensus five-star recruit from Cleveland Glenville. O'Neal's career at OSU has been marked by inconsistency; though O'Neal made 30 tackles, an interception and a sack while starting the last eight games, he was usurped in the starting lineup by Russell once the latter returned from a knee injury in 2007.

A reserve and special teams player once again, O'Neal made just 14 tackles, but a strong spring has him in the running to be Ohio State's "star" defensive back who lines up over the slot receiver in the nickel and has extra playmaking and run-stopping responsibilities.

That growth is an extension of what Haynes called some good practices last year, a run of which earned him time before nagging injuries caught up.

"Last year he went about three weeks to a month in the middle of the season where he had great practices," Haynes said. "He actually got in. He had that good of practices that we actually put him in the game because he did show a lot of improvement. Then he got hurt."

On the other end of the spectrum is another player who earned five stars coming out of high school in Eugene Clifford. The Cincinnati Colerain product was OSU's top-rated player in the class of 2007 and even got on the field for four games before an injury caused him to seek a medical redshirt.

His future at Ohio State looked questionable, though, when he was suspended for the national title game. However, defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said Clifford was not in any sort of doghouse, and his position-mates have been quick to praise him during the offseason for both on- and off-field progress.

"I talked to him in the offseason and I told him, ‘We're going to need you.'" Coleman said. "I think it's kind of clicked. He's kind of matured. He's ready to do what the team needs him to do."

Pentello didn't quite have the same kind of hype as either of those two coming out of high school – he was just a two-star recruit according to Scout – and a redshirt kept him from making an impact in 2007. However, the former quarterback at Westerville (Ohio) South nonetheless is making progress according to Haynes.

"It was a totally new position for him a little bit," Haynes said. "It was more thinking and passive than anything I would say in the fall. Now I think he's feeling a little bit more comfortable back there so you're seeing a little bit more burst out of him."

Even a player like Gant, who has been a backup the past two years while accumulating 16 tackles in 19 games, was singled out by Coleman at free safety as a player who was stepping up and showing what he could do. In addition, Haynes put Patterson in as a player who has been working with OSU's second unit.

The result is that Coleman and Russell are feeling a push from behind as they attempt to build on a season in which they combined for 127 tackles but just two forced fumbles and no interceptions.

"Our first two guys started last year, but the bigger thing to make them better is competition," Haynes said. "If they knew that they didn't have anybody behind them to push them, it's tougher to sit there and try to make them better. But we have some guys behind them that are pushing to make them better."

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