Alex Grinch advanced in his coaching career by taking units not loaded with blue-chip players and having success anyway.
His latest stop, Washington State, was nowhere to be found atop the recruiting rankings, for example. It’s a different story for the Ohio State co-defensive coordinator, whose position group is safeties.
It’s still early in spring practice and much remains unsettled, but Grinch likes having the raw material at his disposal.
“The elite programs don’t just have speed,” the Grove City native said. “They have big speed, and at a place like Ohio State, we have big speed backed up by big speed. That’s the main thing you see and feel when you’re at practice.”
The Buckeyes lose mainstay Damon Webb at one safety, but Jordan Fuller returns after earning third-team all-Big Ten honors by league coaches in 2017 as a sophomore.
The other spot is up in the air.
“The field safety is a concern right now,” coach Urban Meyer said at the start of spring practice.
Isaiah Pryor, a sophomore, is regarded by many as the front-runner for that spot. Webb, for example, raved at the NFL combine about Pryor’s potential, describing him as “very smart” and his athleticism as “freakish.”
Grinch raved about Pryor’s potential as well, but cautioned that he’s still in the process of converting that into performance on the field.
“I think he’s a worker,” Grinch said. “I talked about big speed. He’s long. He can run. He certainly has a good knowledge base of the defense that’s noticeable.
“Like a lot of young guys, I think the next step for him is to cut it loose and have the confidence that he knows it. Sometimes with young guys, sometimes they know it better than they think they know it. They’re so used to being a step behind mentally that it affects them physically.”
Pryor spoke after practice on Thursday, one in which he said he didn’t perform that well. He said that Jahsen Wint did have an excellent day. Amir Riep, who flashed in kick coverage last year, is also in the mix. So are Wayne Davis and Brendon White, who also practiced as a receiver last year.
“Reps are pretty even at this point, and that’s by design,” Grinch said. “We like to shuffle the deck. Isaiah is getting a lot of work with the 1s, and he’s got to make sure he takes advantage of those reps.
“The message to him is, if you want to stay there, you have to perform at a certain level. It’s a privilege to be a 1. You earn that. We’re rotating other guys through.”
Grinch is still learning his players, and vice versa. But the first impressions are good ones. Greg Schiano coached the safeties last year.
“He’s a young guy with a lot of energy and is really knowledgeable,” Fuller said. “I love to pick his brain and how to play certain techniques. I’m loving it, and he’s a great guy, too.”
With the proliferation of spread offenses, the safety position has evolved. Until recently, the two safeties were pretty clearly defined. The free safety was primarily a coverage position. The strong safety also had a lot of responsibility in the run game and tended to be bulkier as a result.
Now, the positions are largely interchangeable. The Buckeyes define theirs as boundary and field — or in their terminology, the Falcon. The boundary safety plays the shorter side of the field. Fuller is primarily playing the field safety, though the safeties all learn both.
“It’s a competition every day,” Pryor said. “It’s a matter of being ready to go on the field when your number is called.”
Fuller is confident that Pryor — or whoever plays safety — will be ready when the season starts.
“He’s definitely getting better,” Fuller said. “We’re all getting better as a whole unit. I’m excited to see what this unit can do.”