Buckeyes defenders mixing in zone

Bill Rabinowitz
Cornerback Jeffrey Okudah (1) said the defense will benefit from working on zone coverage in the spring. Last season, the Buckeyes didn't drill on the zone until after the season started, he said. [Joshua A. Bickel]

For years, it was the philosophical cornerstone for Ohio State cornerbacks.

The Buckeyes used press, man-to-man coverage. They had zone in their playbook, but they prided themselves on matching up solo against wide receivers.

Too often last year, opposing receivers won those battles. Buckeyes cornerbacks were usually in position to make plays, but for whatever reason — failing to look back for the ball was a major one — weren't able to consistently.

When Ryan Day ascended to the head coaching job, he retained only one defensive assistant coach, esteemed line coach Larry Johnson. He put ex-NFL coach Jeff Hafley in charge of the secondary, with Matt Barnes, formerly of Maryland, as his assistant.

Day and Hafley have been deliberately vague about what the defense will look like this year schematically.

“Well, we’ll let people figure that one out,” Hafley said with a smile Wednesday morning after the team’s seventh spring practice.

A little later, Buckeyes players shed more light.

“We’re running a little bit more zone,” defensive back Shaun Wade said. “It’s a good mix this year. Last year, we played a lot of man.”

It appears to be a welcome change.

“In the league, they play zone,” Wade said, referring to the NFL. “Everywhere else, they play zone. You can keep your eyes on the quarterbacks and make more picks.”

Wade said the mixture of zone and man will allow the Buckeyes to disguise coverages better. Ohio State had only 11 interceptions last season. Wade said the defense’s goal this year is at least 15.

Ohio State could have had more interceptions last year if they’d had better ball awareness, particularly on deep balls. In his introductory news conference, Hafley vowed his defenders would do a better job turning around to look for the ball.

“We’re definitely drilling it more early on,” junior cornerback Jeffrey Okudah said. “Last year, we didn’t start working on that until maybe after the Tulane game (in late September).

“You’re giving us a six-game head start to work on one technique. Doing that now as opposed to doing it later in the season, I think you’re going to see guys way more confident to look back for the football.”

Day has reconfigured the defensive coaching staff so that both Hafley and Barnes coach all of the defensive backs instead of having cornerbacks and safeties in different units. Hafley said that should enable the defensive backs to be more interchangeable and allow players to understand responsibilities of other positions.

“I want to teach these guys how to play the game,” Hafley said. “I don’t want them to just be pigeon-holed into one position. I want them to play football and learn different positions. I think it will help us and help them in the future.”

So far, so good.

“You understand the bigger picture,” Okudah said. “My first two years, we were all separated so we had to kind of communicate on the fly. Having the secondary together, we understand what each other is trying to do.”

Okudah is working with his third position coach in as many years. He likes what Hafley has brought.

“He’s a really high-energy guy, and his energy is actually pretty contagious,” Okudah said. “The drills he’s implemented, everybody’s getting better every day.”

Hafley has no interest in revisiting the struggles Ohio State’s defense had last year. He was with the San Francisco 49ers then. He is only looking forward.

“I look at what we have right now, and all I want to see is consistency and guys getting better every day,” he said.


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