Safe to say Everett Withers has a lot on his plate this month as Ohio State goes through preseason football camp.
Withers, who is co-defensive coordinator of the Buckeyes and handles the team’s safeties, has a pair of senior starters to rely on, but his room is overflowing with young players who need to be developed both for depth this season and to contribute in the future.
While three-year starters C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant took their usual spots at the back of the No. 1 defense during practice Wednesday and fellow senior Corey “Pittsburgh” Brown handled the sixth DB spot in the Buckeyes’ new dime defense, youngsters abounded throughout the two-deep.
That included sophomore Ron Tanner and true freshman Chris Worley at safety on the second team along with true freshman Vonn Bell at the Star (a.k.a. nickel back) and sophomore Najee Murray at dime back.
Redshirt freshman Tyvis Powell returned to the No. 1 Star role he assumed during spring ball, but Withers confirmed Bell has move in behind him on the depth chart. The coach said true freshman Cam Burrows is in the mix at dime back but was out with an undisclosed injury. Sophomore Devan Bogard also figures to have a say in who gets the nickel and dime reps, but he was out with a strained knee.
Youth also reigned at cornerback Wednesday as true freshman Gareon Conley took the majority of the reps with the first team opposite Doran Grant, a junior who is looking at his first year as a starter. Conley, a highly regarded prospect from Massillon (Ohio) Washington, was in the place of Bradley Roby, an All-Big Ten selection last year who presumably has been demoted the the second team during practice as punishment for an incident at an Indiana bar that has him facing battery charges. Sophomore Armani Reeves and true freshman Eli Apple shared reps opposite Roby on the second team.
“There are some young guys,” Withers said. “We’ll continue to grow them because the bottom line is you want to continue to develop them to get some depth so that when it’s their time to play the safety spots or the corner spots they’ve already been on the field.”
Then there is the matter of a controversial new aspect of the rules that has been the talk of college football (at least when actual football matters are being talked) throughout the offseason – targeting.
While the same actions are illegal that were illegal last year, a penalty for targeting or leading with the crown of the helmet now carries not only a 15-yard markoff against the defense but also an automatic game disqualification for the offending player. Video review can ultimately overturn the ejection, but many fear inconsistent application of the rule.
The practice Wednesday did nothing to dispel that concern, either, as Worley drew a flag for a head-first collision with sophomore tight end Nick Vannett. Whether Worley led with the crown of his helmet or Vannett was judged a defenseless receiver because he was still completing the catch was unclear, but defensive coordinator Luke Fickell’s vehement disagreement went for naught and Worley watched the rest of practice from the end zone rather than on the sideline with the rest of the defense.
Withers, who said he saw the hit but wasn’t sure if it was a penalty, took a practical approach after practice.
“Any time you can get an example on tape, you always want to use it to teach,” Withers said. “It’s a rule about safety. As a coach you have to use it as a teaching tool about safety. I try not to get into whether it’s right or wrong. That’s really the only way we can go about teaching it, that it’s about safety.”
Rather than get into a discussion about the fairness of the rule or the potential problems with its application, Withers stressed the safety angle and spoke about the added urgency it creates in developing depth.
“What it does and I really believe this is make coaches on defense make sure they go two or three deep because it will affect you during the season,” he said. “You hope not, but there’s a good possibility.”