Withers Adds Aggressive ‘NFL Style’ Touch to OSU Defense
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS — They say if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.
They also say those who fail to evolve face extinction.
Such is the paradox that was facing Ohio State coach Urban Meyer when he put Luke Fickell in charge of his defense back in January. The Buckeyes had been among the best in the country on that side of the ball since Fickell joined the staff as an assistant back in 2002.
Jim Tressel won a national championship that year on the teeth of his ferocious defense, which treated Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey to a heavy dose of what he was going to see at the next level.
That was not the same defense Ohio State put on the field a year ago. Not even close. Last year’s group was one of the sloppiest, most fundamentally unsound units OSU fans have seen on the field since the last days of the John Cooper era in Columbus.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“It was something we don’t like as a defense. We pride ourselves on going out there and having 11 hats to the ball and there were times last year we had maybe six or seven,” safety Orhian Johnson said.
“We came into it with the mentality we didn’t play the ball we need to and we let those guys down. For our defense to work, we need all 11 hats flying to the football.”
That has been one of Ohio State’s mantras on defense since Jim Heacock became the defensive coordinator back in 2005. In their first five seasons under Heacock, the Buckeyes ranked among the top 10 in the country every year in scoring and total defense.
They led the nation in both categories back in 2007, but Meyer wanted to play a little bit more aggressive style of defense than what the Buckeyes had shown the last few years. For that, he hired former North Carolina defensive coordinator Everett Withers to serve directly under Fickell.
“He brings a lot of things that they did even in the NFL and at North Carolina as well,” Fickell said this fall.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“It's an aggressive style. It's the ability to play off sometimes in the back end and still allow those guys to have great vision and play on the football.”
The 49-year old Withers was the defensive coordinator at Louisville from 1995-97, when Fickell was playing nose guard for the Buckeyes, but he has also coached the secondary with the New Orleans Saints and Tennessee Titans, along with a three-year stint under Mack Brown at the University of Texas.
In his first season with the Titans, Withers helped Tennessee to its first top 10 defensive ranking in the NFL. From 2002-04, the Titans grabbed 57 interceptions – the best ever for a three year span for the franchise, and fourth best in the AFC.
“To me, turnovers come because you either pressure the quarterback into turnovers, or you knock the ball loose,” said Withers, a first year co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State.
“It doesn't happen a lot of times when you're just playing coverage unless the guy just throws it to you. That doesn't happen very much. Hopefully the pass rush will help us in that area. Hopefully fitting the run game better, we'll get more guys and hats to the ball and that will help us.”
In many ways, the Buckeyes are still going to look like the same defense Ohio State fans had become accustomed to for a decade before last season’s letdown. Fickell will replace Heacock as the guy who calls the plays for Meyer on defense and Withers will coach the secondary.
There won’t be any major changes in scheme, but the Buckeyes will make some adjustments on the back end of their defense – as long as they’re able to get pressure on the front end.
“I don't know if there's anything different than what's been in the past. We've done a few things coverage wise to help us with some adjustments,” said Withers, who also serves as Meyer’s assistant head coach.
“But we're not changing to a bump and run, press man, one high defense. We're still going to play the base defense. There will be a few technique and fundamental things that we've changed a little.”
One major change for the defense this year is a decision to play the cornerbacks further from the line of scrimmage. The coaches felt Ohio State’s corners were limited in their ability to make plays on the ball last season because they were forced to play so much press coverage.
Photo by Jim Davidson
One reason for that was the absence of senior defensive end Nathan Williams, along with any real pass rush up front outside of John Simon and, at times, Johnathan Hankins.
“I feel like if our front starts the game out well and we play well it'll help out the back end and help guys in the secondary,” said Hankins, now a junior in his second year as a starter on the defensive line.
“But it always starts in the trenches with the offensive and defensive line. That's the way the game goes.”
With 23 sacks last season, the Buckeyes were just sixth in the Big Ten, nearly half as many as conference-leading Michigan State. Fickell is hoping his 2012 defense will be able to generate a lot more pressure up front with a four-man pass rush than his group did a year ago.
“We want to be aggressive,” Fickell said.
“We believe our strength of our defense is going to be up front. We'd be crazy to not allow them to be aggressive and do some things and play off of them from behind them, but we're going to play to our strengths.”
The Buckeyes also know they need to create more turnovers than they did last season, when they dropped from 12th in the country to 77th in takeaways. That’s where Withers has been instrumental this offseason. During his four years at UNC, the Tar Heels picked off 71 passes, including 20 in one season.
“He just emphasizes being more attacking and not being so steady or just watching the play,” Hankins said.
“Let's go attack and do our jobs. Just make plays, get upfield, get some penetration on the pass and run. Just get penetration, deflect balls and cause havoc for the quarterback and help out the back end.”
Sounds a lot like that 2002 Buckeye defense.
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