The "star", played notably in the past by All-Americans Mike Doss, Will Allen and Donte Whitner along with All-Big Ten selection Antonio Smith, is something of a Swiss army knife of the Ohio State defense – asked to do a little bit of everything, including help in coverage, run support and rushing the passer.
Speaking to reporters April 8, Paul Haynes, the Buckeyes' safeties coach, named four players practicing the position this spring.
Not among the group was Anderson Russell, a starter at safety in the base defense who returns this year as a junior and who played star last season. Instead Haynes said April 8 the No. 1 star was Jamario O'Neal with Chimdi Chekwa, Jermale Hines and Tyler Moeller practicing there as well.
That was a curious group, to be sure. O'Neal is a senior safety who was a five-star recruit from Cleveland Glenvlle in 2005, but he has yet to make a serious impression on Saturdays in the fall. Chekwa flashed strong cover skills at times as the third cornerback last season but does not play with the typical physical style of past "stars". Then there are Hines and Moeller, sophomores with some previous brief flirtations with or conversations about playing safety but both of whom are currently listed as linebackers.
"Those guys could both be safeties, body type-wise," Haynes said of the 6-2, 210-pound Hines and 6-0, 216-pound Moeller. "They play out there (in space). In a lot of our base stuff, when people are in ‘gray' formation, they're out there anyway and doing the same thing. It's kind of just a body. We play the same defense on base and nickel, a lot of times."
The plot thickened when later that week head coach Jim Tressel confirmed rumors that O'Neal and fellow defensive backs Donald Washington and Eugene Clifford had found their way into his doghouse. Although Tressel would not identify the players' transgression, observers of practice and the April 12 jersey scrimmage saw that Chekwa filled the star when a five-defensive back look was called upon and Moeller and Hines both saw considerable time as the third linebacker when four DBs were on the field.
Or was that Hines and Moeller with the nickel package?
Without a doubt, the presence of Hines or Moeller at linebacker served to disguise the OSU defense, and beyond that Kurt Coleman, who figures to start alongside Russell at safety for a second season this fall, said the idea is to make the nickel package stronger against the run.
"What we're doing is keeping a linebacker in because other teams like to run against us, and we're going to stop the run first because we feel like our DBs are good enough that we can play man-to-man or whatever zone coverage we're in and still stay intact and not give up the play," he said.
"(Moeller and Hines) are so diverse and so athletic that they can do multiple things. They can cover, they can blitz. They can stop the run. They are a new breed of linebacker with what they are doing now, because they can do it all. I think we're definitely going to have a little bit of a different look to it but with the freshmen coming in you never know what they're going to throw at us but I think Jermale Hines and Tyler Moeller can definitely hold down the nickel spot."