Meyer made several adjustments to his defensive staff in the off-season, both in personnel and in each coach's responsibilities. The biggest change was turning over the defensive backfield completely to new hire Chris Ash.
Following an impressive spring by the defensive backs, it was apparent that things are headed ion the right direction. Six players stood out as highly improved players, according to individuals that were at each practice.
Doran Grant. Cornerback. Senior. The unquestioned leader of a very young group of players. Grant bought into Ash's philosophy, not only on the field, but in the meeting room where his leadership is needed most. On-field, his coverage was improved, especially in press man, which Ash wants to play. Grant is headed toward an NFL career and next year will determine his draft status. He has a chance to be among the best in the Big Ten on the corner. He was asked to play a more physical style, and he accepted the challenge.
Eli Apple. Cornerback. Redshirt freshman. Surprise-Surprise, but this was the most improved defensive back this spring without question. Apple suffered from an undetected medical condition as a true freshman, but he is at 100% health and his play reflected it. If the Ohio State opener were being played tomorrow, Eli Apple would start at cornerback opposite Grant. He is the most physical cornerback on the roster, perfect for what Ash expects from the position. As his health improved, Apple's confidence grew and grew, to the point where he leaped over the other corners.
Gareon Conley. Cornerback. Redshirt freshman. Has the length, height, speed and hip recovery to be exactly what Ash wants at the position. Conley simply has to get stronger, and a summer in the weight room could push him even with Apple, or even ahead of him. He doesn't have the ability to be strong in run support or jam receivers at the line at his current weight, but he's not far off. Conley competes like heck, and wants to be better, and all that's lacking is more physical strength, which gives Apple the nod today.
Armani Reeves. Cornerback. Junior. Was targeted and picked on by Ohio State opponents last year, and it was a rough year overall. To Reeves' credit, he has the perfect mentality Ash wants at defensive back, in that he continues to work at getting better and is tougher than nails. Size works against him, and he isn't the fastest player on the team, but he is strong and is a fighter on the outside. I do not see him having the talent of others in the position group, but it appears he isn't going away and definitely got better this spring. If the redshirt freshman struggle early, watch for Reeves to be back out there as a starter.
Tyvis Powell. Safety. Redshirt sophomore. Played out of position last year, and it showed far too often. Moved to safety by Ash, and Powell responded by not pouting or crying, but worked his way into a starting role. The thought is that he will be able to handle safety far better than the nickel, or STAR position. He earned a starting spot this spring, and definitely played well, using his intelligence and his size. Will take over for Grant next season as the leader of the defensive backs, and is a future captain at Ohio State.
Cameron Burrows. Safety. Sophomore. Another one switching positions, and there is no doubt Burrows thinks of himself as a cornerback and not a safety. There's also no doubting that he embraced the switch without a hint of attitude, and played the position well enough to be thought of a potential starter. Vonn Bell is the presumed started at this spot, but Burrows is not handing it over without a scrap. He has the physical style of play, and while his coverage is suspect on the corner, it's just fine at safety. Even if he doesn't start, Burrows will definitely be in the mix for playing time.
SUMMARY: The biggest change this year will be the cornerbacks playing press, and it could be ugly early. This is a tough place to get on the job training, and teams could find success going against the inexperience of Conley and Apple. Grant should have no trouble at all, forcing teams to look elsewhere.
The optimism is with the potential of Conley and Apple, who are both going to take their lumps this coming season, but look out down the road.
The thought is that once these two redshirt freshman get the experience they so desperately lack, Ohio State will more than be able to replace Grant in 2015. They could be set on the corner with two shutdown types for three years, once these two learn the ropes in 2014.