Nickel and Dimed: OSU Defense Aiming to be More Versatile
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Everett Withers had one goal in mind when he accepted the position of co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State: build a championship caliber defense to match what Urban Meyer and Tom Herman were going to do on the other side of the ball.
His blueprint? Alabama of course. The Crimson Tide have won back-to-back titles and three of the last four BCS National Championship games on the strength of their smashmouth defense.
It’s equal parts toughness, fundamentals and athleticism, but Withers realizes very few teams can play ‘Bama’s NFL style defense against an ever-changing landscape of offensive football.
“You would like to be able to say you could play with your base defense and play against three and four wide receivers sets, but today’s game has changed so much,” Withers told The-Ozone.
“Today’s offenses are so much three and four wide receivers, you need more speed and athleticism on the field.”
Withers would love to throw three linebackers out there who can run and hit like Ryan Shazier, but most teams are countering college football’s new spread obsession but getting more defensive backs on the field.
That was something the Buckeyes were not very good at defensively last season, primarily because they didn’t get a chance to work on the nickel or dime packages much in the spring with all the other changes going on inside the program.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt we thought we could have used more of the nickel and dime packages we started to use a little bit late in the year,” Withers said this spring.
“We thought if we had those available to us earlier in the year, we would have been a little more flexible in what we could have done.”
Getting a fifth defensive back on the field in passing situations is not something new at Ohio State. The Buckeyes have been using a “Star” position since the early years of Jim Tressel’s tenure in Columbus, but the position is in a state of flux heading into the 2013 football season.
“It’s a big question mark for us,” Withers said.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“Orhian (Johnson) gave us something there last year, as far as coverage wise. We think Tyvis (Powell) could maybe give us some of that, and we recruited some guys who can play in that spot. We think, we don’t know, but we hope.”
Powell would be an intriguing replacement for Johnson, a departed senior who spent most of last season as Ohio State’s nickel back. He did not play a single snap as a true freshman last season, but the 6-3 safety out of Bedford is more of a throwback to what the “Star” position used to be.
“He’s a bigger, more athletic guy who can play the slot, still be able to cover and still be physical,” Withers said of Powell.
“He gives us a little bit that hybrid linebacker/DB in that slot. That’s something we’re trying to experiment with Tyvis.”
Another option for the Buckeyes would be Corey “Pittsburgh” Brown. The fifth-year senior out of Pennsylvania is the only returning player who saw time at the “Star” position last season, but he wasn’t tremendously successful in that role a year ago.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“Pittsburgh has done a really good job of coming to work every day,” Withers said.
“We put him in a lot of different positions, he’s playing strong safety, he’s playing nickel and he’s playing dime. He has a little more on his plate sometimes than the other guys, bur I think he embraces the role.”
Brown is a veteran safety who has not played much in his first four season at Ohio State, at least compared to what people were anticipating back when he was a five-star prospect in the class of 2009.
The Buckeyes have also experimented with a dime package for the first time this spring, where they play only three down linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs. Junior Adam Griffin and freshman Cam Burrows have been seen action as the dime back in obvious passing situations this spring, but the kid who could really make the package a more attractive option for the coaches would be Vonn Bell.
The five-star safety out of Georgia hasn’t gone to a single class, lifted a single weight or played a single snap of practice at Ohio State yet, but he has all the intangibles Withers and defensive coordinator Luke Fickell are looking for in that role this fall.
Because the Buckeyes have experience in the back end of their defense – all four seniors are defensive backs – it makes sense to want more of those guys on the field, but Fickell isn’t giving up on Ohio State’s base package just yet.
“We’re going to play the best 11 guys,” he said.
“We’re going to put he best 11 tacklers on the field and find a way to be successful. If that happens to be two linebackers or four linebackers, we’re going to find a way to get the best 11 out there.”
Or maybe it will be a combination of both. At least six of the teams Ohio State will play this fall are running a spread attack, so the Buckeyes know they will need flexibility than ever on defense.
“If we can find two or three guys who can help us inside in those nickel and dime spots,” Withers said, “I think it will give us more versatility to do some things.”
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