Safeties Vying To Fill Coleman's Shoes

Ohio State loses plenty of leadership in Kurt Coleman, but the most pressing concern is who will physically replace him in the lineup Saturday against Indiana. As of Wednesday night, that question remained unanswered in the eyes of the Buckeye coaching staff.

Almost exactly 72 hours away from Ohio State's game with Indiana, safeties coach Paul Haynes said he does not know how the Buckeyes will replace suspended starter Kurt Coleman.

"We've got a couple guys," Haynes said following Wednesday's practice. "That decision has not been made yet. We've got the rest of those guys rolling through and changing some guys around to see who that's going to be."

Haynes added that he expects the final decision to made around game time Saturday.

The team's most experienced player with 28 starts under his belt, Coleman was suspended for one game by the Big Ten after a helmet-to-helmet hit he applied in the final moments of the team's Sept. 26 contest with Illinois. In addition to having the most tackles of any player on the OSU roster for his career, the senior team captain has started all four games this season at strong safety.

Ironically, one of the names most likely to see more playing time this week is Anderson Russell. A fifth-year senior who lost his starting free safety spot after the first game of the season, Russell actually has more starts (32) than anyone else on the roster.

Russell had still seen plenty of action despite losing his starting spot, however. With the Buckeyes – in Haynes' estimation – in their nickel defense 70 percent of the time, the senior found himself still on the field as the Buckeyes employed five defensive backs.

In that alignment, Russell was the team's free safety and Hines slid over to the nickel back position, known as the ‘star' at OSU. With all his experience, Russell is the most likely candidate to see more playing time in Coleman's absence.

The problem with Russell is that he has shown an alarming propensity to give up the big play in recent games. After allowing the game-winning touchdown in the Fiesta Bowl last season, Russell allowed two passing touchdowns to Navy in the season opener this year including an 85-yarder to the team's running back.

"The bottom line is when you're in that situation, it looks bad but you've got to make sure you continue to learn from it," Haynes said. "Don't let it happen again and continue to learn from it. The things that happened to the Texas game and the Navy game are two different types of deals, but the big thing is to keep learning from it."

Coleman's backup on the depth chart dated Sept. 27 is redshirt freshman Orhian Johnson, who has seen limited action this year after missing the season opener with an ankle injury. Johnson was the first player mentioned after Anderson by head coach Jim Tressel at his weekly press luncheon.

Haynes said they like the overall package Johnson, who also played quarterback in high school, brings to the table.

"He's a big kid that's been around a little bit," Haynes said. "He can run. He's always been a guy that's getting a lot of reps for us, so any time a guy is getting a bunch of reps, you hopefully feel that he's a little bit ahead of everybody else."

Johnson is listed at 6-2, 178 pounds on the depth chart, tying him with Hines as the tallest defensive back in the two-deep. During Tuesday's practice, he was seen working with the ones.

After him, the coaches have pointed to redshirt freshman Zach Domicone – who is available this week for the first time this season due to injury – as well as sophomore Nate Oliver as possible replacements. Senior Aaron Gant is out indefinitely after having arthroscopic surgery, leading Tressel to characterize the safety position as thin during the Illinois game.

In addition, true freshman C.J. Barnett has been moved from cornerback to safety and could figure into the mix.

Whoever steps into the void, Haynes said he knows what he is hoping to see from them this week.

"Just play with confidence in practice," he said. "A kid who plays with confidence in practice, at least you feel confident that the kid knows what he's doing. Not in panic mode. Everything is based off mental errors, so if you're not making mental errors you have a chance.

"If he can get lined up and be in the right place, then you've got a chance. That's the main thing you've got to look at and make sure that the kid is confident and can get himself lined up and he's talking and communicating."

Another possibility the Buckeyes could explore is using three cornerbacks instead of three safeties in the nickel defense. Junior Chimdi Chekwa has started all four games this year at one corner spot, while senior Andre Amos and junior Devon Torrence have each started two games at the other corner position.

Haynes did not rule out the possibility of getting those three players on the field along with two safeties while in the nickel defense.

"The big thing is everybody has to step up on the whole team, not just at the position," Haynes said. "The whole team has to step up when you lose a leader. There's nothing more that they have to do. They just have to do their job."

So who will it be? Looks like we'll have to wait and see.

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