Thinking Out Loud: Replacing Christian Bryant, Worrying about the Wildcats
By Brandon Castel
The Buckeyes haven’t lost a game since the Luke Fickell era, but there’s a lot to talk about with Urban Meyer’s ball club heading into Saturday’s game against Northwestern. For starters, this is the one game I circled on my calendar before the start of the season. I remember being on the Buckeye Cruise for Cancer back in February when Kirk Herbstreit mentioned this game to Meyer during a college football preview session.
Herby and I were on the same page in thinking this game was probably the most dangerous one on Ohio State’s schedule. For starters, it’s at night on the road. That always makes things a little more interesting. Just think about Indiana last season. Who expected that to be much of a game? I know it’s “just Northwestern” but anyone who can’t see what Pat Fitzgerald is doing up there simply doesn’t want to.
The Wildcats are coming off a 10-win season and a Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State. They are 4-0 on the season ranked No. 16 in the country and they have a multi-faceted offensive attack that could give Ohio State’s defense fits on Saturday. But the main reason I thought this game could be especially dangerous is because this team is probably better than most of the players on Ohio State think. This isn’t Michigan or Wisconsin or Michigan State. This is Northwestern, and yet this might be the best team the Buckeyes face during the regular season. If they don’t realize that, they are going to find that out pretty quickly.
Junior quarterback Trevor Siemian is completing 66 percent of his passes this season and senior Kain Colter is up over 77 percent on the season. Colter has thrown and rushed for a touchdown in each of the last three games and the Wildcats have put 35+ points on the board in every game so far, and that’s basically without senior tailback Venric Mark. The 5-8 speedster out of Texas rushed for over 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, but hasn’t played since the opener because of a leg injury. He’s expected back this week, though we’ll have to wait and see how much he can do on Saturday.
If he’s anywhere close to full strength, I expect him to give the Buckeyes fits.
Replacing Christian Bryant
Photo by Jim Davidson
How big of a loss is Christian Bryant for this Ohio State team? For starters, he was ranked No. 7 on our preseason countdown of Most Important Buckeyes for 2013. That was heading into the season, and it was up nine spots from his preseason rank heading into last season. One could even make an argument – considering the suspensions of Carlos Hyde and Bradley Roby – for Bryant’s importance being higher than seven so far this season, but any time you lose a top 10 player on your team it’s going to leave a mark.
As my colleague Patrick Murphy wrote back in August, Bryant was second on the team in tackles a year ago, but his biggest contribution to this team was experience and leadership. Not many people would have predicted the latter early in Bryant’s career, but he really did become one of the emotional leaders for the Buckeyes as a senior this fall. As Meyer pointed out this week, it was a bad time to lose a guy like that because the Buckeyes are heading to Evanston this weekend. While it won’t exactly be a hostile environment – Ohio State should be well represented inside Ryan Field – it is the first real road test of the season. It’s under the lights. It’s in primetime. And it’s against maybe the most dangerous offense Ohio State will see all year.
Not having Christian Bryant puts more on the shoulders of guys like C.J. Barnett and Bradley Roby, who has got to play better than he did last week against Wisconsin. It also puts some pressure on guys like Ryan Shazier, Curtis Grant and Michael Bennett to step into more of a leadership role on the defense. Of the three, Grant might actually be the most natural-born leader, but he hasn’t played enough football in his career to really be looked at as a leader.
Photo by Jim Davidson
And then there is Corey Brown. Meyer said he was going to have a talk with Everett Withers about replacing Bryant, but Corey “Pittsburgh” Brown was the guy atop the depth chart this week in place of Bryant. If you don’t remember the other Corey Brown – not to be confused with this guy – he was once the No. 6 cornerback prospect in the country and the top-rated player in the state of Pennsylvania.
Brown was a 5-star prospect in the class of 2009, more than 100 spots higher than C.J. Barnett, but he has never developed into the type of player we all thought he might. I say we all thought, not because of the ranking as much as the total skillset. This is a kid who had three picks in the Hawaii Classic All-Star Game before playing in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. He could have played received or defensive back, but really has never quite been the same since his major knee injury back in 2010.
With Bryant and Barnett at the back end, Brown has been playing the Star position in the nickel and dime defenses the last two years, but he hasn’t really looked comfortable in that position. I see him as more of a playmaker, a guy who can play centerfield and track down the ball in the air, than a man-coverage guy who can come up and lay a hit on the running back.
He has played back there a little bit, but maybe the deep safety spot will finally open the door for Brown to get some confidence and start playing like the guy he was recruited to be. If not, Ohio State’s options really are pretty limited. Tyvis Powell is not the answer. That’s not a knock on Powell at all, but he is a much better fit for that inside Star position than playing deep safety. Plus, he has so much positive momentum going right now, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to move him.
That leaves redshirt sophomore Ron Tanner and freshman Vonn Bell as the only other options, unless Withers and Luke Fickell want to get a little creative. It’s possible they could think about moving a guy like Armani Reeves, but I’m not sure Reeves is a much better option at the moment. I know everyone is going to ask about Bell, because he was so heavily recruited this past year, but I have to think we would have seen more of him on defense this year if he was ready to step in and start at safety. Maybe they can put him on a crash course to get him ready, but my guess is he’s still a few weeks away from being ready to play that role.
So what happens?
Good question. Corey Brown is going to get the first crack at it, unless they decide to try something funky. That leaves Tyvis Powell in the nickel and, I assume, Vonn Bell in the dime. Not sure where Ron Tanner fits in. I’ve liked what I’ve seen from him so far this year, but I don’t know if he’s quite ready for this. Then again, I don’t know if any of them are.