COLUMBUS, Ohio — When things are going poorly, it's always best to have a few options to make the situation better. For the Ohio State pass defense last year, however, those options were limited, and everybody saw the results.
Buckeyes Expecting to Play More Cornerbacks This Year
By Tony Gerdeman
The OSU defense finished 112th in the nation in passing yards allowed (268.0), giving up 358 more yards than any Ohio State defense before it. In fact, it's only thanks to the 1981 OSU defense (273.2 ypg) that the 2013 version didn't finish as the worst pass defense in school history.
There were plenty of reasons for what happened last year, and a rehash isn't necessary. One thing is clear, however, and that's while the struggles were happening, the OSU roster in the secondary just wasn't where it needed to be.
The Buckeyes only played four cornerbacks on defense a season ago, and only three of them really saw any significant action.
It could certainly be argued that both Bradley Roby and Armani Reeves didn't play as well as they were expected to, and only Doran Grant met or exceeded expectations. Cameron Burrows played in 12 games as a true freshman, but his snaps on defense were few and far between.
Tyvis Powell was still technically a cornerback last year, but he was the team's nickel back and that was really his only role. The deficiencies in the roster – or stubbornness from the coaches – also made it impossible to move Powell from the nickel until the bowl game.
Urban Meyer signed cornerbacks Gareon Conley and Eli Apple in the 2013 class, but they were deemed not yet ready for primetime when the season began.
The roster situation led to Roby and Grant playing more snaps than cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs would have liked, and it's something that he is determined to avoid again in 2014.
"We're gonna play more than two, I want you to know that," Coombs said this past spring.
"Gareon is right in the mix. Eli Apple has had a very good spring. I'm eager, and I'm gonna tell you what, those two freshmen coming in are gonna have a chance to play."
Those two freshmen are Damon Webb and Marshon Lattimore, two of the more sought-after cornerbacks in the entire 2014 class.
Both Meyer and Coombs want their freshmen to see the field this coming season, but it's also something that they wanted very much a year ago.
"We wanted to do it last year," Meyer explained on Signing Day.
"We didn't. Gareon Conley should have played last year. That's Gareon's fault and our fault – the position coach's fault, if we're going to sit here and blame, which I'm not blaming. But we're counting on these guys to go play."
Apple battled health issues last season and Conley just wasn't as strong as he needed to be. Both had fantastic camps this past spring, and they will each see significant time on the field in 2014.
That's all well and good, but the Ohio State defense missed them last year, and it's something that Coombs doesn't want to go through again.
"Their job is simple," Coombs said of the incoming freshmen.
"Their job is to prepare to play for Ohio State in a very, very short period of time. And that's their only job. We've been around these guys...making sure they understand their expectation of themselves, because it is what our expectation is, that they come in prepared to play this fall."
This is not to say that the Buckeyes will need a couple of freshman cornerbacks in order to be successful, but as this defense learned a year ago, having options is always better than not having options.
The roster as it stands now looks promising, even with the loss of Roby to the NFL. If the coaches didn't feel good about where they stand, then they never would have moved Burrows to nickel or safety.
Coombs is encouraged by what he has seen, but does that mean the Buckeyes are already deeper at cornerback than they were a year ago?
"Not yet, but we will be," he said, "and we'll have to be because the style of play dictates it, so those guys are going to have to play."
That style of play is an aggressive press style that requires physicality on every snap. The more cornerbacks the Buckeyes have on their roster who can handle that style the better, because they will be able to provide breathers to starters, which wasn't something that happened much a year ago.
The increased number of cornerbacks means that there will now be more players fighting for snaps, which is really the only way to get the most out of a team.
"There's going to be competition," Coombs said.
"We've got good young players. But when you have young players, you have unproven players. So they've got to get out and play every day, which is great.
"We've been challenged by really good receivers all spring long. We're going to have that again all fall camp. And then we're going to line up that first week and they've got to go play, and then we'll find out. But we've got enough guys with talent that I think we can play more players and get them out there."
It may have only been spring football, but both Conley and Apple established themselves as players to watch this season, and they were both repping behind veteran cornerbacks Grant and Reeves.
But as Reeves pointed out, there is a very simple way to get yourself onto that depth chart.
"If you play hard, play fast, hit hard, they’re going to notice it," he said.
"They're going to find a way to get you on the field. Whether it be corner, nickel, dime, whatever, they’re going to find a way to get you on the field no matter what position you play. So just play hard and go hard and they’re going to find somewhere for you."
The OSU cornerbacks may not be deeper just yet, but as long as they play as hard as they hit, it could just be a matter of time.
The Buckeyes will have six scholarship cornerbacks on the roster this season, and four of them will have freshman eligibility. There will be some growing pains, but the position is getting very close to where Meyer wants it.
And who knows, maybe it's already there.
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