Young OSU Safeties Soaking Up Experience

Though a pair of soon-to-be third-year starters limits the competition at the top of the safety depth chart, the rest has plenty of intrigue for position coach Paul Haynes this spring, so much so that Haynes told reporters he did not mind seeing one of those veterans on the sidelines from time to time.

Ohio State's safeties coach has so many players to keep track of this spring, he had no qualm with the injury bug for biting two of his upperclassmen.

Paul Haynes had too many other youngsters oozing potential to worry about the absences of Kurt Coleman or Aaron Gant.

Instead, he was happy to see redshirt freshmen Orhian Johnson and Zach Domicone along with true freshman Jamie Wood find more time for practice repetitions that figure to be valuable down the road.

While watching those youngsters, Haynes also had third-year sophomores Rocco Pentello and Nate Oliver in the mix for playing time, not to mention true junior Jermale Hines.

"Really the whole point of the spring is just trying to get them to learn the system," Haynes said. "Zach Domicone, Rocco – all those guys have been improving."

As upbeat as Haynes when speaking to reporters was Coleman, a two-year starter who rolled his right ankle at the beginning of spring practice then had to wait more than a week to return to live action.

Coleman had his own stint as unofficial secondary coach while awaiting clearance from the doctors to practice again, and the team's third-leading tackler of 2008 liked what he saw in terms of depth for this season and potential for the future.

"We recruit so much talent, I never think the talent drops off anywhere," he said. "It's just right now more of a mental game. I think that's what we're doing right now. We're coming in early mornings and doing a great job just picking up the schemes and techniques. I think maybe by game two everybody should be fluid and comfortable out there."

The youngster to turn the most heads in spring ball is one who was back in his home state of Florida still finishing high school this time a year ago: Johnson, a 6-2, 178-pound product of Gulfport Boca Ciega.

"Orhian's doing real well," Coleman said. "He's a tall safety. He's very lanky and he can cover a lot of ground."

Haynes said Johnson passes the look test in terms of build and athleticism even if he is still figuring out where to line up and what to do when he gets there.

"He has play-making ability," Haynes said before praising the youngster's instincts. "Now it's just a matter of learning the terminology and getting comfortable with the terminology and just playing. But you don't have to tell him a whole lot as far as football because he understands football."

"He plays the ball very well, and right now it's just kind of the mental aspect," Coleman added. "He doesn't know the full defense, but he's such a versatile player he can make plays without even knowing (what he's doing) every time. I think once he gets that down I could see him rotating in during the season."

Despite Coleman's statement, playing time figures to be sparse this fall. Though Johnson was seen quite often getting reps alongside two-year starter Andreson Russell with the first-team defense while Coleman was out, he also has to contend with at least one more big, experienced player to get on the field as a safety in Ohio State's base defense should something happen to Russell or Coleman during the season.

Hines, listed 6-2 and 210 pounds, spends much of his time at the hybrid "Star" position when Ohio State goes to its nickel or dime formations, but he was also no stranger to the top of the safety depth chart while Coleman was on the sideline. That's nothing new, though. Hines started the first two games of last season in Coleman's place because of an ankle problem. When Coleman returned, Hines lost his spot in the starting base defense but remained an integral part of the team as Star.

"He's a great run safety," Coleman said. "Surprisingly for his size, he's a big player but he can cover a lot of ground. Usually they just put him out at the middle at safety and let him just roam the field and make plays. That's what he does best."

Coleman was back to full-time participation in time for the defense's victory in the spring jersey scrimmage Saturday, and the combination of he and Russell have a stranglehold on the top spots, but the future appears bright.

Gant will look to get back in the picture as well. Haynes told reporters last week Gant was to have a knee scoped and would miss the rest of spring practice, but such a procedure should not jeopardize his availability for preseason practice.

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