Spring Forecast: Safety
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — It might still feel like the middle of basketball season in Columbus, but spring football is right around the corner.
This isn’t some ‘Ohio State football is 24/7’ type of pitch, the Buckeyes really do open spring camp two weeks from today. That’s nearly a month before they would normally have opened spring ball when the University was still on academic quarters.
The switch to semesters will make for an interesting breakdown of spring practice. It starts March 5 and ends April 13, with the annual Spring Game, which is being played down in Cincinnati this year.
With Urban Meyer gearing up for a potential national championship run in 2013, we take a look at the safety position and what the Buckeyes will have to work with this spring.
Who's Coming Back?
While most of the OSU defense will need reshaped in 2013, the back end should provide a bit of comfort for defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and safeties coach Everett Withers, the team’s co-defensive coordinator.
Photo by Jim Davidson
That’s because the Buckeyes return both starters from last season, and both guys – Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett – will be seniors in 2013. The Buckeyes also return senior backup Corey Brown, who will have to replace Orhian Johnson as the spot starter or backup at both safety spots in the spring.
Bryant finished second on the team behind Ryan Shazier last season with 71 tackles. Barnett was fourth on the team with 56 stops a year after leading the Buckeyes in tackles as a sophomore in 2011.
Along with the three seniors, the Buckeyes return a handful of key backups at the safety position, most notably redshirt sophomore Ron Tanner out of Columbus Eastmoor Academy.
C. J. Barnett
Photo by Jim Davidson
Senior Jamie Wood is trying to make a comeback from his second major shoulder surgery, but he won’t be available for any type of contact in the spring. The same is probably true of sophomore De’van Bogard, who played in seven games last season before missing the rest of the year with a torn ACL.
Another guy who could factor in at safety is redshirt freshman Tyvis Powell, a 6-3 defensive back from Bedford who came to OSU as a corner but could get a look at safety position in the spring.
Expectations Heading Into Spring
The Buckeyes were not a dominant defense in 2012. Even at the end of the year when Zach Boren helped solidify things in the front seven, there were still some issues with communication on the back end of the defense.
Ohio State ranked 78th in the country against the pass last season, which is an area this team has to improve on if the Buckeyes are going to have a chance at another undefeated season and possible shot to dethrone the SEC out in Pasadena.
As the only two seniors on the defense, Bryant and Barnett are the guys who have to emerge as leaders on a unit that must replace four captains from a year ago. Both guys will be three-year starters at Ohio State, so a lot of what the Buckeyes are able to accomplish on defense could depend on the play of the guys on the back end.
With guys like Boren, John Simon, Johnathan Hankins and Nathan Williams out there last year, Bryant and Barnett were just looked at as “two of the guys” out there, but that all changes in 2013.
The Buckeyes will have Bradley Roby and Ryan Shazier back for another run, but there will be a lot of expectations placed on Bryant and Barnett to play at an elite level as a seniors. Barnett struggled through an ankle injury last season that greatly diminished his play, although he did come up with the big interceptions against Michigan in the season finale.
Best Case Scenario
The best case scenario for Ohio State is having a pair of seniors at the safety spot who play like seniors, guys who play with energy and passion and leave it all on the field.
For Barnett, it’s really a matter of staying healthy. When he’s been healthy, he’s been a pretty good football player but his performance really slipped last year after the ankle injury.
He’s not really a speedy guy on the back end of the defense, but the need him to fly around and make tackles on the edge. They also need him to create a few more takeaways than he did last year when he had two interceptions and no fumbles forced or recovered.
The real key for the Buckeyes, however, is probably Bryant. He has a much higher ceiling – and much lower floor – than Barnett. When he’s playing well, he’s among the best players at his position in the Big Ten. When he’s not, it’s noticeable to everyone in the stadium.
The good news for Ohio State is Bryant improved his play dramatically last season from what it was as a first-year starter in 2011. He cut down on his missed tackles and always seemed to be around the football. Now they have to hope another year in the system will give him a little more awareness.
One to Watch For
With both starters back, there won’t be much opportunity for a young guy to break through on the back end this spring, but keep an eye on incoming freshman Cam Burrows.
He’s probably going to start out as a corner, and could even crack the two-deep at that position, but he also might get a look at the ‘Star’ position in the nickel. Bogard is another kid who might get a shot to play that inside safety spot whenever he gets healthy, but with Bogard still recovering from knee surgery, Burrows might get a chance to step in and take some meaningful snaps early in his career.
Trending Up or Down
The safety spot as a whole is definitely trending up for the Buckeyes, especially after a big National Signing Day which saw Meyer and Withers land a commitment from 5-star Vonn Bell.
It sounds like Bell is a kid who could step in and be ready to play right away, but he won’t be on campus until the summer. It’s tough for kids to miss spring ball and still make a big impact early because the coaches can’t really start working with them until August.
Bell might be the special case of a kid who is just so good he can pick it up on the fly, but the safety spot should be even better in 2013 than it was a year ago whether Bell contributes or not.
A healthy C.J. Barnett and a more experienced Christian Bryant should do wonders for the back end of the defense, and they should have some good depth when they get Bogard back from his knee injury.
Along with Bell, they also add Jayme Thompson and Chris Worley to the mix in the fall.
There’s no reason to think the safeties can’t be a strength for the Buckeyes on defense this season, but they also need be one of the more improved groups on the team for that to happen.
The Buckeyes gave up a lot of yardage through the air last season, and they won’t have guys like Simon, Hankins and Williams chasing down quarterbacks in the backfield this year.
That means there is more pressure on guys like Bryant and Barnett to make sure they keep everything in front of them.
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