2012 Buckeye Rewind - Defensive Backs
By Tony Gerdeman
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Coming into the 2012 season, the Ohio State secondary was loaded with potential. However, that potential was a two-way street that saw miscommunications between corners and safeties happening almost every week the year before.
The 2012 Buckeye secondary returned all four starters from the previous season, as well as veteran nickel back Orhian Johnson. Safety C.J. Barnett led the 2011 team in tackles with 75, and fellow safety Christian Bryant was right behind him with 68.
They were both productive players – Barnett was a Second-Team All-Big Ten selection, and Bryant was second on the team in passes defended – but they both had stretches of inconsistency that hindered an already dubious defense.
Travis Howard and Bradley Roby both returned as starters at cornerback this past season after being one of the best duos in the conference in 2011. Like Barnett and Bryant, however, they both had some loose ends to tie up if 2012 was going to be the season that everyone wanted it to be.
Expectations Coming Into The Season
The expectations were pretty simple: be better than the year before. Even though there was a new head coach, a new safeties coach, and two new cornerbacks coaches, it was pretty well understood that the top five defensive backs weren't going to change.
The level at which those defensive backs needed to play in 2012 was expected to be much higher. The communication needed to be better. The tackling needed to be better. Everything needed to be better. The potential was there, it just needed to be realized on the field.
Photo by Dan Harker
As an example of that, cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said before the season that he believed Bradley Roby was a future first-round NFL draft pick. Nobody who had seen Roby in practice as a true freshman, or watched him on the field in 2011 as a redshirt freshman, doubted him. Through spring practices though, Urban Meyer was quite frank that he had not yet been as impressed with Roby as everyone else had been to that point.
It was a recurring theme of "needing to get better", and if Meyer could look at arguably Ohio State's best defender and say that he still needs to get much better, then what did that say about everybody else on the defense as well? There were high expectations for the 2012 secondary, and Meyer's expectations were no different.
How the Season Played Out
Ohio State gave up 243.5 yards passing per game in 2012, which was 78th in the nation. While passing yards allowed is sometimes a meaningless statistic, many of the passing yards the Buckeye defense gave up came from big plays, which were anything but meaningless.
In fact, no team in the nation gave up more 70-yard passing plays than Ohio State's four. Their 17 passing plays of 30 yards or more were eighth in the Big Ten. Those same miscommunication and tackling issues that were prevalent in 2011 made several appearances in 2012.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Along the way, however, Meyer began to rave about his secondary. While we saw Christian Bryant miss a big tackle here or there, Meyer would talk about how that one missed tackle was Bryant's only negative on the day. Or how one missed coverage by Travis Howard was the only thing that he needed to correct in order to garner a championship performance.
Basically, the secondary was beginning to play like Meyer wanted them to, they just couldn't eliminate the one or two inopportune mistakes per game. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, it never cost them a game.
Those mistakes didn't end up being killers, but they were certainly frustrating. Adding on to that frustration was the fact that Bradley Roby missed a game with an injury and Barnett missed three. Once everybody returned, however, they began to gel as a unit over the second half of the season. The entire defense did, in fact.
Roby ended up on a few All-American teams, and both the coaches' and media's First-Team All-Big Ten team. Howard made it on the media's First Team. Bryant made the coaches' second team and Barnett made Honorable Mention on both teams.
Roby led the nation in passes defended per game (1.73), and Howard led the Big Ten in interceptions with four. Bryant proved to be one of the biggest hitters in the conference, Barnett averaged more tackles per game (6.2) than anybody else in the secondary, and Orhian Johnson stepped in whenever and wherever he was needed.
What Should We Expect in 2013
Roby, Bryant and Barnett all return in 2013, which most teams would take in a heartbeat. Roby will be on just about everybody's All-American list, and Bryant and Barnett will be on many All-Big Ten lists.
C. J. Barnett
Photo by Jim Davidson
However, there are still two spots that need to be filled. Right now it looks like Doran Grant will step into Travis Howard's spot at cornerback. Last season, Coombs called Grant their "third starter", and he has plenty of confidence in him. Grant played very well against UAB last year when he started in place of Roby, but he had some coverage issues later in the season.
Sophomores Armani Reeves and Najee Murray should also get a look, as may freshmen Eli Apple and Cameron Burrows. Though it's most likely that those four, and a few others, will be battling for Grant's old spot as the third cornerback.
The real battle may end up at nickel back. Safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers would prefer to play three linebackers as much as possible, but it's not clear if the Buckeyes will be able to accommodate him this season. Regardless, with the number of spread teams in the Big Ten now, a fifth defensive back is a must.
The question then becomes whether they go with a cornerback or a safety as that nickel back. Safeties Corey Brown and Devan Bogard appear to be the most likely candidates, but there is definitely room for somebody else to step in.
There are a lot of jobs to be won on this defense, and the nickel back might be the most underappreciated battle to watch.
The 2012 secondary was one that improved as the season wore on. With new coaches coaching established players, a learning curve was inevitable. However, now that everybody knows everybody, things need to be taken to the next level in 2013.
Having a pair of three-year starters at safety is very reassuring for a defense, and having perhaps the best cornerback in the country next to them doesn't hurt.
These players learned a lot about themselves last season, including what it takes to reach perfection. But in 2013, perfection will require two more games, and even better play.
With six new starters in the front seven next season, this secondary is going to have a lot of pressure on them. How well the defense performs as a whole will likely be directly proportional to how well the secondary handles that pressure.
To put it another way, if the mistakes aren't eliminated, then the Buckeyes will be.
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