The Ohio State safeties went into the spring with the problem of having to replace All-American Malik Hooker, and they certainly didn’t get the entire job done over March and April. They are closer than they were, but there is still plenty of work to be done. The good news is that returning starter Damon Webb has stepped up and there are talented options to join him in the starting lineup. Consistency will be what separates those who play and those who don’t.
7 Damon Webb, Sr (5-11 195)
4 Jordan Fuller, Soph (6-2 207)
15 Wayne Davis, rFr (5-10 193)
34 Erick Smith, Sr (6-0 203) OR
4 Jordan Fuller, Soph (6-2 207)
23 Jahsen Wint, rFr (5-10 196) OR
14 Isaiah Pryor, Fr (6-2 192)
While the Buckeyes return Damon Webb at free safety, where exactly the two eventual starters will line up isn’t necessarily known just yet. They’ll go with the best two, and if that means those best two have Webb at strong safety, then he’ll move out to center field where Malik Hooker played last year. I wouldn’t expect that to happen, but we shouldn’t just assume that Webb is set at free safety. Each safety repped at both spots this spring so that defensive coordinator Greg Schiano could see what everyone is capable of.
“Right now, the guy who performed like a starter is Damon Webb. He had his best stretch of football that I’ve ever seen in him — and I haven’t seen that much, but from what I’ve seen, it was his best stretch of football. He has a look about him, a focus that I think this is going to be a huge summer for him. He’s going to come back and have a great senior year.” — Greg Schiano
It would be crazy to think that one of the current Buckeye safeties could emerge as one of the school’s greatest of all time. That never happens with new starters…
Dotable (Which youngster should be doted on?)
I really think you should get excited about freshman Isaiah Pryor. He’s young and he made some mistakes this spring, but his size and ability to cover ground is reminiscent of a guy like Malik Hooker. It’s gonna take some time to see if that comparison ever materializes, but there’s a ton of potential here. Plus, he picks things up quickly and already has a good understanding of what he is being asked to do. I don’t know how much he will play on defense this season, but I expect that he and Jordan Fuller will be the starting duo in 2018.
The Big Ten coaches voted Damon Webb an Honorable Mention All-B1G safety last year, and based on the way Greg Schiano and Urban Meyer talked about him this spring, he’s going to earn some more accolades this year. Webb had a bit of a rough start last season, but over the second half of 2016 he was very solid. He continued that rise throughout the spring and the staff really has no concerns about him.
“Gone Malik Hooker is. Yes, hrrmmm. Step in to replace him somebody must. Candidates there are. Sure things there are not. Lead a very young group Damon Webb must. The last line of defense for the Buckeyes this is. To the Dark Side they must not fall.”
Damon Webb was the scapegoat early last year when the pass defense wasn’t going well, but that was usually because he was one of the only guys giving up catches. Opposing offenses found out quickly that attacking Webb was the lesser of four evils in the secondary. Webb shouldn’t be the scapegoat this year, however, as I would expect that role to go to the deep safety who gets beat over the top a few times. That will be either Erick Smith or Jordan Fuller. And if one of those guys struggles early, it may take them a while to shake the stigma.
I am expecting there to be a rotation of three safeties to start this season, with Erick Smith and Jordan Fuller joining Damon Webb. The reason I say that is because I didn’t see anything this spring to make me think that Fuller or Smith had separated themselves enough to warrant the job all by their lonesome. Does that change in the fall? Maybe, once one of Fuller or Smith struggles in the first couple of games and the other thrives. Just based on what little I saw this spring, I expected more from Erick Smith given his experience level, even though he’s been injured for much of his career. If you were asking me to pick a winner from those two this spring, I’d go with Fuller based on the number of snaps I saw them both take with the ones.
I asked Greg Schiano after the spring if it looked like they were headed toward a three-man rotation at safety and he told me he didn’t know because right now they only have one guy they’re sure of. Contrast that to a year ago when the Buckeyes were replacing both starters at safety, yet there was no concern about Malik Hooker. Damon Webb began the spring of 2016 as a cornerback, so you see the kind of progress that can be made over the course of a few months. Like Webb, redshirt freshman Wayne Davis moved from corner to safety, but the process has had its ups and downs. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, they have some depth at the position. Davis will need to make an impact on special teams before he gets a serious look on defense. Schiano did have some good things to say about redshirt freshman Jahsen Wint, saying that he took a nice step in the spring. Wint is a big hitter, but like all safeties he needs to understand the coverages and his responsibilities, which he is getting better at doing.
I really like the potential of Jordan Fuller. Physically, he looks like Malik Hooker already, but looks don’t mean a whole lot if the rest of the package isn’t there. He came to Ohio State as a cornerback, so he has coverage skills. As an athlete, he is one of the most explosive players on the team. He played both free and strong safety this spring, going through growing pains along the way. The good news is that he understands this defense. Keep in mind that he was Damon Webb’s backup as a true freshman last year, so he’s well aware of his responsibilities. It’s going to be very difficult for Erick Smith to keep Fuller off the field. I would have liked to have seen more plays from him in the limited opportunities that we got to watch, especially with OSU throwing so many deep balls this spring. He’s just getting started, though.
Erick Smith has spent most of his career rehabbing from injury, so the Buckeyes will have to watch him carefully this year. He was fine throughout the spring and showed no ill effects of past injuries. Amazingly, this is already his senior season, so he’s going to do everything he can to put his very best on the field. Here’s hoping his body literally holds up to its end of the bargain.
Just keep an eye on Isaiah Pryor. Yeah, he’s a freshman, but he showed some great range and some tremendous downhill speed. He might be the total package. The only thing holding him back is understanding the defense and his portion of it. Being as smart as he is, however, he could move up the depth chart pretty quickly.
After seeing how well the cornerback rotation worked, the Buckeyes looked into doing the same with the safeties this spring. That meant Damon Webb would go from free safety to strong safety, and Jordan Fuller would go from strong safety to the bench, then Erick Smith would come in and go to free safety, and they would rotate like this throughout a practice. As such, everybody this spring was “floatable”. I wasn’t sure how well Webb would do in center field, but from what I saw, he made more plays in that area than Smith or Fuller. I believe Greg Schiano wants a rotation, but he doesn’t want it if it’s a rotation by default. He doesn’t want to have to play three safeties simply because neither Smith or Fuller are good enough for major minutes. Like Kerry Coombs with the corners and Larry Johnson with the defensive line, Schiano wants to play as many guys as are good enough to play. I don’t think they reached that milestone in April, but they don’t need to. There are some young guys in this group and their growth over the summer will also help push the veterans. They’ll enter fall camp better than they were when they left spring ball, but exactly how good that will be, we’ll have to wait and see.