Playing with confidence
The first thing Ryan Day mentioned when he brought up the performance of Ohio State’s defense in its second preseason scrimmage was turnovers.
“We are running to the ball, we're creating turnovers,” Day said. “The secondary is playing with energy.”
It was an encouraging development for the Buckeyes.
After they intercepted 21 passes in 2016, more than all but three teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, their performance slipped.
The Buckeyes finished with 13 interceptions in 2017 and 11 in 2018. Their defense was plagued by several issues last fall, including a less-stifling secondary.
Jeff Hafley, the new co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach, credited the defensive backs' improvement in the preseason to a change in their approach.
“They know what they’re doing,” Hafley said. “They’re playing with good fundamentals, good technique. And then they’re confident. They’re finishing, and they’re finishing violent. They’re not afraid to try to make a play. That’s what practice is for.
“It’s fun to see them doing that. If they make a mistake, we’ll fix it. But I want them to be fearless. I want that to be their mindset. When you do that, some of those good things will happen.”
Safety Brendon White named several players when asked where the bulk of the interceptions during preseason practices had come.
White brought up sophomore safety Josh Proctor, junior cornerback Amir Riep, junior cornerback Jeff Okudah and redshirt sophomore cornerback Shaun Wade.
Most players said the uptick in interceptions was owed to the simplified scheme under new defensive coaches, including Hafley and fellow co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.
“We’re just having athletes out there going out and making plays, not too much thinking,” White said. “They don’t want us thinking too much, but go out there and play ball. We have certain plays where we have to think here and there, but at the end of the day, the defensive game plan is lowered a little bit, which allows us to go out there and make plays.”
Wade’s assessment was similar.
“We’re playing faster,” he said. “That’s really the main reason. Playing faster and getting on course with our safeties, reading a quarterback and getting to the ball. That’s where I’m making my plays.”
Experience helps, too.
The secondary returned all of its starters from last season with the exception of cornerback Kendall Sheffield, who left early for the NFL. Sheffield’s two interceptions were second-most on the team last season behind Wade's three.
Every other defensive back who picked off a pass last season is back.
Most of the players thought the increase in turnovers could continue during games in large part because of the strength of the defensive line, arguably the strongest position group on the defense.
Several of the interceptions were aided by pressure that the front seven put on quarterbacks during practices this month.
The secondary then took advantage.
Hafley held the same view.
“When I think of turnovers, it’s everybody,” Hafley said. “It’s ball disruption by the defensive line. It’s the linebackers getting in (passing) windows. It’s tipped balls. Then a lot of the times we end up catching them and getting credit for them as the DBs.”