Ohio State will be replacing two-year starter Damon Webb at free/field/falcon safety this season, and they will have to do it with a player who possesses superb coverage skills. Junior Jordan Fuller returns for his second year of starting at strong/boundary/deep/post safety, and the Buckeyes look to be in pretty good hands there. Fuller was named a Third-Team All-B1G selection last season.
The man in charge of finding another starter and two backups is new safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. Grinch will have a number of players to work with, but the experience that those players possess will be minimal. This spring will be used to not only get them more comfortable, but also to figure out exactly what he has.
Jordan Fuller did well replacing an all-timer in Malik Hooker, and Damon Webb got better each week out in his two seasons as a starter. There is plenty to do here, and much to live up to. A step backward is not going to be tolerated, and in order to keep that from happening the work gets cranked up this spring.
Because Grinch is new around here, we’ve given him a to-do list for the safeties, which is probably pretty welcomed by him. (Even if he won’t say it personally.)
1. Make sure Isaiah Pryor can cover slot receivers.
As former Ohio State cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said for years, the field safety in OSU’s defense is essentially a slot corner, and so whoever is manning this position for the Buckeyes is going to have to defend smaller, quicker receivers. That is what made Damon Webb an ideal fit, having moved over from cornerback. Both Webb and Vonn Bell, who was the first free safety in OSU’s quarters defense, were under 6-feet tall and quick enough to handle smaller receivers. At 6-foot-2 and 197 pounds, Isaiah Pryor is going to be challenged on every snap to show that he isn’t too big for this role. If he truly can handle quicker slot guys, then the Buckeyes could have something very special on their hands.
2. Find out if Isaiah Pryor can call a defense.
Damon Webb wasn’t just a talented man-to-man defender, he knew the defense extremely well and put the Buckeye secondary in the proper positions. Will that job now fall to the new field safety or will it be handed off to Jordan Fuller? There was a possibility of a three-man rotation at safety a year ago, so perhaps that possibility continues this season. If it does, then Fuller and likely Pryor will both need to know how to call a defense. Fortunately for each of the safeties involved, there is plenty of time to get the studying in. The returns at the end of the season on Pryor from Webb were that he would be able to pick it all up because he is smart and mature.
3. Figure out the two-deep.
Alex Grinch needs to find two starters, but he also needs to find the two guys behind those guys. Jahsen Wint and Wayne Davis were reserves a year ago, but they hardly played. Both players are now redshirt sophomores and will get plenty of action over the next month because there will only be five safeties on scholarship this spring. Along with those two will be sophomore Amir Riep, who has moved from cornerback. Moving from corner makes him an ideal possibility at field safety. If Grinch doesn’t feel good about his two-deep after spring, then incoming freshmen Josh Proctor and Marcus Hooker may have to step up. Or perhaps another cornerback will have to move over.
4. Determine where Amir Riep fits best.
Amir Riep may be a great fit as a field safety. He played cornerback last season and is accustomed to the rigors of man coverage. The move from cornerback to safety has been made by guys like Tyvis Powell, Damon Webb, and Jordan Fuller. Each of those players had different roles as safeties, and Riep’s versatility could land him at either safety spot. In high school he showed great range and the kind of aggression that OSU needs at deep safety, but his corner skills could be better utilized at field safety. He is already likely working at one spot, but whether he stays there or not may depend on everyone else. Or he may just end up taking the field safety job from Isaiah Pryor. This Tuesday will be the third practice of the spring, which is when Damon Webb took the job from Eric Glover-Williams back in 2016.
5. Allow Jordan Fuller to blossom as a leader.
As a true freshman, Jordan Fuller was Damon Webb’s back up in 2016. Last season, he stepped in for Malik Hooker, who produced arguably the greatest season for a defensive back in Ohio State history. Now, Fuller was never expected to match those numbers, but never once did Fuller’s play highlight the lack of Hooker’s presence. Fuller pulled off the almost unthinkable by making the transition from Hooker to himself painless. And he did it as a first-year starter. Now he is a veteran, so don’t be surprised if Alex Grinch hands over the reins and says, “Here you go.” The Buckeyes lost a bunch of captains, and now they are searching for more. Use this spring to find out if Jordan Fuller is one of the new leaders that Ohio State is looking for.