Buckeyes Looking for Safeties in Every Corner?
By Tony Gerdeman
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The last line of defense for any football team is the safeties, and if those safeties are a liability in the passing game, then that defense has already lost.
With the move to a quarters defense for the Buckeyes, the Ohio State safeties will now be required to cover receivers and tight ends in man-to-man coverage more than ever before.
That requirement brings with it the need for the Buckeye safeties to actually be able to cover those receivers. Finding safeties who can cover like cornerbacks isn't easy, which is why the Buckeyes decided to simply move a couple of corners to safety in order to expedite the process.
Sophomores Tyvis Powell and Cameron Burrows both began their careers at corner, but now find themselves being asked to provide the last line of defense for an Ohio State defense that has promised to be much more cohesive in the back end.
Considering that both players were pretty big for cornerbacks even when they signed -- Powell was 6-foot-3 and Burrows weighed in at over 200 pounds -- neither move comes as a surprise. In fact, Powell started at safety in last season's Orange Bowl.
This is a natural progression for both, and the results so far are pretty evident in spring practice.
"Tyvis played safety in high school, so he has a background playing safety and Cam has the body build to play safety," explained fellow safety Ron Tanner.
"They're both very athletic guys who can definitely cover the field well, either at safety, star or corner. They're good coverage guys, and then they also can hit, so that helps out a lot playing safety."
With new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash bringing in his quarters defense, safeties will be required to cover receivers and tight ends just like cornerbacks. But they will also be as involved in the running game as the linebackers.
It's a lot to ask of any safety, let alone a safety who used to be a cornerback, which is why Ash has specific types of players in mind when searching out capable safeties.
"Anytime you can get big corners like that that have good feet and hips and can run, and some toughness, that's outstanding," Ash said of Powell and Burrows. "They're the model of what we'd like to recruit here."
Powell (6-3, 205) and Burrows (6-0, 208) have performed well this spring, with Burrows stepping in for the injured Vonn Bell. Powell, meanwhile, has been one of the stars of practice so far.
Photo by Dan Harker
When asked which players have impressed him this spring, Ash didn't hesitate to mention Powell.
"The obvious is that he's long, he's tall, he can run," Ash explained.
"He's got great ball skills, he's a very smart player. He's got a really good football I.Q. Up to this point, Tyvis competes, he's smart, and he's got a little bit of everything."
With how well Powell is playing so far, he is finding his new home comfortable and to his liking. Some of the reason for that is because safety is not all that unfamiliar to him.
"The thing about the safety thing, it didn't really bother me because in high school that's what I played," Powell said.
"So it's just basically coming back to playing what I was already playing. The Orange Bowl, I think I played decent for me to be playing safety for the first time. I had a lot of practices, but I don't think I did bad. Obviously I didn't do that bad because they've still got me there."
Powell spent last season as the team's nickel back and was always seen as an eventual starter at safety this season. Vonn Bell was expected to line up next to Powell this season, with Burrows getting snaps at nickel back.
With Bell's injury, however, Burrows has slid up a spot. If he continues to excel, he may not relinquish the spot that Bell once held.
Photo by Dan Harker
"Cam Burrows has stepped in and has taken advantage of the opportunity and done a great job," Ash said.
"Vonn will be healthy soon and we're going to have a great competition for those safety positions, but Cam has done a nice job in his absence."
In high school Burrows would hear about his eventual move to safety in college, but only ever worried about what his coaches were asking of him at that moment.
Now, that moment calls for him to play safety, and Burrows realizes that this is no small matter.
"It's a big change for me," he said. "But I mean I'm still a DB, I can still move, my hips are still good, so Coach Ash is doing a great job of coaching and everything is going good."
Like Ash, Burrows thinks he is tailor-made to play safety in this defense.
"Definitely, because of the way we have the free safety, he's more of a corner-type player, and he's to the passing strength," he explained.
With safeties who grew up playing man-to-man coverage as cornerbacks, not only should their transition to safety be smoother, but the defense's transition to a new scheme should be as well.
The success of this defense will hinge on all levels doing their part, but having two safeties who can't cover is a non-starter.
If Powell and Burrows can cover like the corners they used to be, and hit like the safeties they are now, then Chris Ash will have found exactly the type of players he was looking for.
And he didn't have to look too far to find them.
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