Recently, we looked at how the “Star” position at Ohio State is developing and even expanding as part of the defensive package the Buckeyes hope to use during the 2013 season.
But what about the players who hope to man the spot? The Buckeyes must find someone to replace Orhian Johnson, who made 39 tackles and picked off two passes a year ago while sinking his teeth into and excelling at the nickel position.
This spring, Tyvis Powell was the No. 1 star when the Buckeyes were in their familiar five-DB defense, but there are no guarantees what will happen when the season actually starts Aug. 31 vs. Buffalo.
“It’s a big question mark for us,” safeties coach Everett Withers said. “Orhian gave us something there last year as far as coverage-wise that we were comfortable with. We think Tyvis might be able to give us that. We’ve recruited some guys that can play in that spot we think – we don’t know, we hope.
“But hopefully we can find that out, and if we can find two or three guys that can help us inside in some of those nickel and dime spots, I think that would give us some more versatility on defense to do some things.”
Johnson – a long, lean athlete who began his OSU career as a safety, starting there for the Buckeyes in 2010 – showed his coverage chops a year ago with seven pass breakups in addition to his two interceptions.
That seems to be the direction the Buckeyes are going with the position. While the job has fallen to both cornerbacks – Antonio Smith proved to be a sure tackler and disruptor at the position in 2006 – and safeties – Jermale Hines was a multiyear starter – in the past, the current defensive staff is putting coverage abilities at the top of the list, especially as spread offenses have shown few signs of abating in recent years.
That means that having a cornerback hold the spot – a la Smith or Malcolm Jenkins when the Buckeyes went nickel at some points in his career – is an attractive option for the OSU coaching staff.
“I think that you take a look at a guy like Malcolm Jenkins that played here and he goes to the NFL and he plays nickel,” cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said. “That’s kind of the way this transition works at that position. You go from being, you gotta be able to play man-to-man to be the nickel and do the things we want to do in coverage stuff. And rather than limit ourselves by coverage by playing bigger guys, we want to play guys who can do that and teach them leverage and get them strong.”
Powell, a redshirt freshman, started the spring as the No. 1 star and ended it there, impressing along the way one spring after earning his fair share of the special kind of encouragement that only Coombs can give.
“I’m pretty sure Tyvis got convinced that over time his name was ‘Dammit!’ as in ‘Dammit, Tyvis!’ ” Coombs joked at the Urban Meyer Spring Kick-Off in early April.
The truth of the matter, though, is that Powell was a bit of a whipping boy for the vocal corners coach last spring, simply because Coombs was in the midst of trying to toughen up the true freshman in the same manner he did with Eli Apple and Cam Burrows this time around.
“I tried to beat Tyvis up every day last year. I tried to toughen him and callous him up, and I did that on purpose because that is what is going to be required for him down the road here,” Coombs said. “He responded. He never buckled. He never folded his cards. He wants to work. He’s not here yet, now. He’s got to get stronger, physically stronger, to be able to play the nickel position for the Buckeyes in the fall. But he has got a chance to be a very, very good player and he’s very conscientious.”
For his part, Powell – who is large for a corner at 6-3, 201 pounds, but has excellent athleticism to go with it – used Coombs' encouragement as motivation, working his way into the starting lineup and not looking out of place in spring.
“This university is based on mental toughness,” Powell said at the Kick-Off event. You just have to mentally get tough, and that’s basically what they’re trying to find out – if you’re mentally tough.”
The proof is in the pudding with Powell, but he is being pushed by a couple of players. Adam Griffin is about the opposite of Powell physically – while Powell is what NFL observers might call a corner of unusual size, Griffin is listed at just 5-8 – but the son of the two-time Heisman Trophy winner is a physical player who has spent his first three seasons in the cornerback room.
Then there are some young players on the squad who were injured and did not play much this spring in corner Najee Murray and safety Devan Bogard plus incoming players Vonn Bell, Jayme Thompson, Chris Worley and Darron Lee who can provide depth either at Star or safety.
“Adam Griffin is playing there right now and doing really well,” Coombs said. “I think there’s a variety of kids that can play that position. The more that kid is like a corner than like a linebacker, the more things you can do in coverage against the spread teams and the guys who want to get the ball out there wide.”
The main step as the Buckeyes move toward the season, though, is to make sure that whoever plays the Star is big enough and strong enough to hold up on run plays while also bringing the coverage abilities the position demands.
“We’re not strong enough yet to be honest with you,” Coombs said. “We’re not. They have to do that. That’s their job between now and August.”