Mining the nickel
Buckeyes try to stay ahead of the curve by using substantial secondary depth
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In the short term, the overflow of experience in the secondary and lack of it elsewhere is a major factor.
Looking a bit further down the road, the types of offenses Ohio State will see early in the season provide yet another reason to tinker.
Perhaps even peering deeper into the crystal ball, the Buckeyes might just be trying to stay ahead of the curve as spread attacks continue to try to stretch defenses and exploit personnel mismatches.
"We're talented in the back end," senior safety C.J. Barnett said. "We're talented everywhere, but the mindset [for safeties coach Everett Withers] is that he wants to get as many defensive backs on the field as he can.
"As long as we're able to prove to him that we can play and we can be out there, why not have six or seven defensive backs out there?"
At some point there's a limit to how many the Buckeyes can actually roll out on the field at once, but they appear more than willing to test that boundary as the defense is overhauled during spring camp.
The front seven lost six starters from the undefeated team a year ago, and the lone holdover is currently on the shelf as linebacker Ryan Shazier recovers from a sports hernia. Meanwhile the secondary seemingly had more veterans reporting for practice than available spots to use them, and that supply, coupled with the demand for experience, has led to some tweaks in the formation.
On one occasion, the Buckeyes spent a workout playing almost exclusively with its nickel personnel. On another afternoon, Withers and the defensive staff toyed with a new grouping that added yet another defensive back to the mix in a dime package that included three linemen and two linebackers in front of them.
Given the infusion of youth near the line of scrimmage, the reliance on production from the back to the front isn't a coincidence given the amount of reps Barnett and fellow senior Christian Bryant have at safety or the playmaking ability Bradley Roby brings to cornerback, not to mention the previous experience Doran Grant brings in coverage or presence Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown provides in a variety of roles.
But it's not just the older guys who are making nickel and dime formations attractive for the Buckeyes, as redshirt freshman Tyvis Powell has been a first-team option in the nickel while several rising sophomores are pushing for expanded roles as well. It's also not just the talent pool, either, as Withers peeks at the schedule and what could be coming early in the season.
"It's maybe a little bit of a combination of both," Withers said. "Today's offenses are so much three and four wide receivers that you need a little bit more speed and athleticism on the field. The way to get that is to put an extra defensive back on the field, so I think that's something we're trying to do a little bit more of, a little more nickel. We even experimented a little bit with a dime package this spring.
The pieces already on hand might have sped up the time frame for the Buckeyes, though they still have more to add after landing perhaps the best class of defensive backs in the country on national signing day.
One of them is already frequently mentioned as a potential addition to the nickel, with safety Vonn Bell generating excitement from the coaching staff even before stepping foot on campus. Bell will find no shortage of competition when he arrives, but the Buckeyes are already making clear they're willing to stretch the limit with their defensive backs if they can get the job done.
"That's by design," cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said. "You know, I think we've got a lot of guys who can play in the back end, and it's a different team. Every team takes on a different style, and if you come watch practice and when you see us in the fall, it's a different team than last year. We've got a lot of kids who are fast and they're playing fast, and that's exciting. We've got to use speed to our advantage.
"We've got to take advantage of the strengths of our players."
Ohio State clearly has settled on where the strength of its defense lies already.