When Chris Ash brought his Quarters defense to Ohio State, it also brought a change in basic philosophies.
There was no more matching up strong sides and weak sides. Now it was about the boundary and the field. The Sam linebacker now defends the field — or wide side, and the Will covers the boundary — or short side.
The safeties are similar, in that the free safety handles the wide side and the strong safety handles the boundary. It’s counter to the old days where the free safety was generally the centerfielder, but now that designation is usually held by the strong safety.
Because of the influx of up-tempo attacks, however, the cornerbacks no longer have time to run from boundary to field, so they have to be able to handle both positions.
That versatility is something that Ohio State defensive coordinators Greg Schiano and Alex Grinch want out of each level of the defense. The positions in the back seven are essentially mirror images of each other, but because one side has more field to defend, there are still differences.
Take the safeties, for instance.
“There’s maybe a little bit more man responsibility to the field,” Grinch, “but there certainly is more green grass out there.”
Man responsibilities may sound simple enough, but with so much space to defend, if something goes wrong, it can go very, very wrong. That’s why finding a capable field safety in this defense is so important.
“Not to make it too simple, but there’s more space on the field,” Grinch explained. “And so you have to protect that area from a back-end standpoint because that thing can run away from you, as opposed to that twelfth defender being the sideline. Well out there at the field, that twelfth defender is a long way away. So in any event, you kinda start that way and work your way to the boundary in terms of getting the right personnel in spots.”
The safeties’ respective assignments depend on who lines up in their zones. The free safety has to deal with man coverage more often simply because there is more room to the field for a slot receiver to run his routes. That doesn’t get the strong safety off the hook, however, because there are plenty of times when he has a one-on-one matchup as well.
That’s another reason why the coaches prefer to have safeties the can play either spot, because eventually they’re each going to run into one-on-one situations with nobody else behind them.
Sophomore safety Isaiah Pryor went into the spring playing free safety, but then moved midway to strong safety. Grinch and Schiano did this for a reason.
“In terms of their overall responsibility, they’re really mirrored,” Grinch said. “So we teach it as such and we want to make sure guys aren’t locking into, ‘Well I’m a falcon to the field or a strong safety to the boundary and that’s the only spot I know.’ We want to make sure we are dual-training, cross-training those guys so we can get the best two on the field.”