The Buckeyes already boast two players with experience at the hybrid safety/linebacker position in seniors Jermale Hines and Tyler Moeller. That has given the Ohio State coaching staff, including safeties coach Paul Haynes, the opportunity to try and find more players who possess the qualities to play the unique position.
So far this spring, junior Nate Oliver has worked with the first-team in nickel situations. He missed Thursday's practice for personal reasons, giving second-teamer Jamie Wood, a red-shirt freshman, a chance to work as the No. 1 star. Wood more than held his own Thursday, even intercepting a pass late in practice.
But it would be a good idea to not read too much into either Oliver or Wood seeing time with the starting defense this fall.
"We're just trying to find new guys to be at that spot," Haynes said. "(Oliver) and Jamie are playing it right now for us, but we've always got Jermale and we've always got Tyler for that spot too."
With the loss of 2009 starting safeties Kurt Coleman and Anderson Russell to graduation, Hines has been working as the No. 1 free safety for the Buckeyes this spring. Sophomore Orhian Johnson has worked as the strong safety, while and Moeller has had second-team duties while working his way back from a head injury that cost him the entire 2009 season. It is too soon to tell where Hines or Moeller will play for sure come the fall, but having extra players learn the star position gives the OSU coaching staff added flexibility.
"We're just trying to make sure we have different plans and can move some guys around and try different things," Haynes said.
Several different players have manned the star position at Ohio State over the years, but the description of what makes a good nickel back has remained the same. Hines, a player that has manned the star position for the past two seasons, knows it's a little different than playing safety. As a safety, Hines has more space in which to operate. Stars need better coverage skills and often play closer to the line of scrimmage than a safety would.
"You have to have instincts," Hines said. "You have to have toughness and you have to be able to run. It's a lot of freelancing out there, so you've got to be a player. You've got to be able to tackle in open space."
Despite Oliver and Wood's emergence as capable "stars-to-be," they likely won't be at the top of the depth chart at the position come the fall. Those honors go to Hines and Moeller.
"Those guys are one, two," Haynes said. "We're just trying some other guys to solidify that spot for us because we never ever had a backup or a third guy at those spots. We know those two guys can do it, so there's no reason for them to do it in the spring. We have them play back more and try to find some guys at that spot."
Finding new talent at the star position will be crucial for the Ohio State coaching staff. The likely outcome in the fall appears to be with Hines and Johnson at safety and Moeller as the star, but with Hines and Moeller exhausting their eligibility following the 2010 season, the Buckeyes will need to rely on some fresh faces in the nickel – a defense Ohio State utilizes roughly 70 percent of the time according to Haynes.