Ohio State's Situation at Nickel Back Has No Shortage of Candidates
By Tony Gerdeman
COLUMBUS, Ohio — One of the more interesting situations to watch for on the Ohio State defense this season is what they ultimately end up doing at nickel back.
Over the last decade or so, because of the influx of the spread offense in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes have been just as likely to play five defensive backs as they have been to play four. The nickel back position has essentially become as much a part of an Ohio State defense as any other position.
The move to a walk-out linebacker this season, however, may be changing the frequency with which a nickel back is currently employed.
Having former safeties like Darron Lee and Chris Worley playing that walk-out spot gives the Buckeyes the safety athleticism and safety speed, but in linebacker bodies.
That doesn't mean there won't be a nickel back, it just means that the Buckeyes will try to stick with their base defense as much as they can. As long as the base defense can handle what gets thrown its way, then there's no need to change things in normal situations.
Obviously, however, there won't always be normal situations. In long passing situations, Ohio State will still put a nickel back on the field. The good news is that there are plenty of candidates. The bad news is that due to Vonn Bell's knee injury, absolutely nothing was settled this spring.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Before the spring began, the plan was to have Cameron Burrows as the number one nickel back, but the early injury to Bell forced OSU to put Burrows at free safety, thereby abandoning their plan to get Burrows time at nickel.
Instead of Burrows then, it was cornerback Armani Reeves moving to nickel in passing situations, and either Gareon Conley or Eli Apple would come in and take Reeves' spot at cornerback.
When talking about who might win the job back in the spring, cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs mentioned a few possibilities.
"There's some guys – Eli [Apple] can play the nickel," he said. "When Vonn Bell's healthy, if Vonn is at safety, then Cam Burrows can play nickel. So we've got some pieces there, and we've got some really good freshmen coming in that are going to have a chance to do that."
The Buckeyes won't discriminate between having a cornerback or a safety at nickel, they simply want the best option. Last season it was a cornerback handling the job in Tyvis Powell, but this season it is anybody's guess.
Burrows played well at safety, and he will likely get a shot at competing for the job this season with Bell. Whichever player comes in second place in that battle would then become the favorite to win the nickel back job.
Those aren't the only two candidates, however. As Coombs has already said, Eli Apple can also play the position, and Reeves played it very well all throughout the spring.
Apple has the size and strength that can match up with receivers between the hashes, as well as help out in run defense. Reeves, who weighs in at 200 pounds, doesn't get pushed around either.
Then, as Coombs mentioned, there are a number of talented freshmen coming in. Urban Meyer has already said that safety Erick Smith will be involved in either nickel or dime situations, which is what happened with a true freshman Burrows and the dime position a year ago.
Cornerback Damon Webb, while only 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, is a violent defender who isn't worried about physical contact. Even though he may be slight of frame, his mentality for physicality is already quite developed.
That is six names for a very important role on a defense that is under the microscope like never before. The good news for Meyer is that there are talented options all around him.
While the position may simply come down to Burrows as had been planned all along, it never hurts to see what other players can do when given a chance. The problem this spring, however, was that the guy they wanted at nickel (Burrows) never got a chance to show what he could do.
It's going to be a while before the position is settled, but the possibilities are promising. Although once they figure out who they're going to put out there, they'll still have to figure out how often they're actually going to use him.
Given how poorly the Ohio State secondary played a season ago, it is hard to imagine that they won't be improved this season, and it's just as hard to imagine the nickel back not having a significant impact on that improvement.
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