Spring Practice Insider: Defense Shows New Look
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Luke Fickell finally got a chance to see his defense hit someone on Tuesday. It wasn’t a full-contact day at Ohio State, but the Buckeyes did put on the pads for their third practice of the spring.
Because of spring break, it had been almost a week since Urban Meyer’s team had been on the field together. The chilly Columbus weather kept the Buckeyes indoors for the third-straight practice this spring, but there was still plenty to see.
Here’s an inside look at the OSU defense, which is looking for seven new starters this offseason.
New Look for Buckeyes D
After working almost exclusively out of their nickel formation (5 DB, 2 LB) in the first practice of the spring, the Buckeyes got even more creative on Tuesday in their quest to slow down opposing spread offenses.
For the first time that I can ever remember on the OSU football beat, the defense lined up in a dime defense (6 DB, 2 LB) for most of the day, as they practiced for obvious passing situations. This 3-2-6 formation is an interesting look because it puts a lot of pressure on the linebackers to take away the middle of the field.
C. J. Barnett
Photo by Jim Davidson
Safety Christian Bryant was typically asked to play deep middle, while C.J. Barnett was used as more of a roaming safety in the middle. There were two corners on the outside and two safeties lined up inside in what would typically be referred to as the “Star” position.
With the first group, those two guys were Tyvis Powell and Corey Brown. Powell is a redshirt freshman from Bedford who we saw working with the starters on the first day of spring ball. Brown is a fifth-year senior who played a lot of “Star” for the Buckeyes last season.
Behind those two guys were Adam Griffin (Archie’s kid) and Cam Burrows. Griffin had been the team’s No. 2 star on day one of spring camp, but Burrows was working at corner during his first practice with the Buckeyes.
Burrows also saw time as a corner on Tuesday, but getting him some action at “Star” makes complete sense. This is a kid who can move like a corner, but he’s definitely big enough to play safety. He might even end up on the back end of the OSU defense some day, but “Star” might be the easiest way to get him on the field early in his career.
With six defensive backs and two linebackers, that only leaves three defensive linemen on the field. The Buckeyes were practicing some 3rd-and-long scenarios for much of the day, so Fickell went with a faster bunch up front. The first group had Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington on the outside with Michael Bennett in the middle. The second group had Steve Miller and Tyquan Lewis/Jamal Marcus on the outside with Rashad Frazier (a transfer from Purdue) inside at tackle.
Spence Dominates Up Front
There was a good 15-20 minute stretch of practice where we got a chance to watch some one-on-one drills between the offensive end defensive linemen. These are typically very spirited because Mike Vrabel and Ed Warinner are both competitive guys. They can get pretty physical, even when it’s not a live hitting day, and that was certainly the case on Tuesday.
It was only a “thud” day in pads, but those guys were getting after it during the one-on-one drills – at least until someone blew the whistle. At first glance, I thought the offensive line performed about as well as we have seen them as a unit in that drill. It helps to have four starters back on their side of the ball vs. zero starters returning on defense, but that doesn’t always mean much this time of year.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Defenses are typically ahead of their offensive counterparts in the spring, but the first 6-7 guys all looked pretty good on Tuesday… as long as they weren’t going against Noah Spence. The sophomore defensive end is quickly emerging as the best player on the OSU defensive front, at least in terms of his ability to get in the backfield and create havoc.
Whether it was one-on-one drills or the full 11-on-11 scrimmage, Spence was typically too fast for any of the OSU offensive linemen. That includes senior left tackle Jack Mewhort. Those two have had some good battles already this spring, but Spence got the better of him on Tuesday. He used his quickness to get outside on Mewhort, then countered with a rip move underneath to get back inside and go right by him. It was all over in a matter of seconds.
Kyle Dodson wishes his battle with Spence had lasted that long. It was over before anyone had time to blink. Dodson did do a better job of handling fellow sophomore Jamal Marcus during their one-on-one battle.
The only other guy who looked even remotely impressive during that drill was J.T. Moore, but that was facilitated by the fact he was going against Tommy Brown. I feel bad for the kid, but he just doesn’t look like he’s capable of blocking any of these guys they have up front defensively.
Young Corners Emerging
One of the more interesting trends I noticed on Tuesday was Armani Reeves getting some reps with the first-team defense. This is a new development from week one of spring ball, and it tends to indicate that maybe Fickell and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs have identified that coveted No. 3 corner to go with Bradley Roby and Doran Grant.
It would be easy to say Grant was losing ground to Reeves for the starting corner spot across from Roby, who is certainly not in danger of missing a single series of football that he doesn’t have to this year, but it’s not as simple as that. While Reeves did sub in for Grant initially, he also flipped over and took a few snaps on the other side while Roby got a break from the first-team defense.
Reeves still spent most of his day working with the second-team defense, but the fact he is getting a look with the ones, even in a limited capacity, suggests the youngster out of Massachusetts has already impressed the coaches this spring.
With Najee Murray still recovering from ACL surgery, the second-team corners were freshmen Cam Burrows and Eli Apple whenever Reeves was with the first group. Burrows tended to stay on the field whenever Reeves did line up with the second group in nickel, but Apple was the guy who really impressed me on Tuesday.
First he locked up Frank Epitropoulos on a slant route, then he blanketed Evan Spencer on a deep route down the right sideline before breaking up the pass at the end. Spencer would come back with a nice push off on Apple for an easy comeback route, but the freshman out of New Jersey showed some natural coverage ability.
Grant had a couple nice battles with Michael Thomas, who I thought was the best-looking receiver on the field Tuesday. Thomas abused Grant on an out and in route the first time, but Grant nearly picked it off the next time he tried that same move.
Emptying the Notebook
* At one point Kerry Coombs threw his clipboard at a ref in protest of a pass interference call. At first I thought he was joking. He wasn't.
* It looks like freshman Tyquan Lewis is coming along nicely. The freshman from North Carolina saw some decent reps at Leo with the 2nd team defense on Tuesday and appears to be competing for that backup spot behind Noah Spence.
* Sophomore Tommy Schutt was working with the first team defense when the Buckeyes were in their nickel defense on Tuesday, while junior Joel Hale with the twos. That was reversed on the first day of spring practice.
* Curtis Grant and David Perkins spent entire practice working with the ones. Josh Perry and Camren Williams were with the twos, with walk-on Craig Fada occasionally rotating in.
* Staring LB Ryan Shazier was still working on the side Tuesday as he continues to recover from surgery to repair a sports hernia. Shazier said he wasn’t sure when he would be back but expects to be out there at some point this spring.
* It looked like Jamal Marcus may have tweaked a hamstring during a 1-on-1 drill against left tackle Kyle Dodson.
* Several former Buckeyes attended practice, including 2012 senior Garrett Goebel and junior Johnathan Hankins, James Laurinaitis (St. Louis Rams), Malcolm Jenkins (New Orleans Saints) and Bobby Carpenter, along with former OSU defensive coordinator Jim Heacock.
Depth Charting the Defense
8 Noah Spence
59 Tyquan Lewis
34 Jamal Marcus
63 Michael Bennett
51 Joel Hale
NOSE TACKLE (Nickel)
90 Tommy Schutt
72 Chris Carter
92 Adolphus Washington
88 Steve Miller
94 Rashad Frazier
14 Curtis Grant
5 Cam Williams
21 David Perkins
37 Josh Perry
38 Craig Fada
STAR 1 (Nickel)
23 Tyvis Powell
11 Adam Griffin
STAR 2 (Dime)
3 Corey Brown
16 Cam Burrows
1 Bradley Roby
13 Eli Apple OR
16 Cam Burrows
12 Doran Grant
26 Armani Reeves
2 Christian Bryant
20 Ron Tanner
4 C.J. Barnett
3 Corey Brown
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