Buckeyes optimistic about back seven on defense despite questions, injuries

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs, standing at right after the spring game on April 17, is happy with the depth in the Buckeyes' secondary.

In Ohio State’s last game, Alabama torched the Buckeyes for 52 points and 621 yards. The Crimson Tide threw for 464 yards against an OSU pass defense that ranked 122th nationally.

During spring practice, four key players in the back seven were out with injuries. In last Saturday’s spring game, Ohio State’s receivers consistently got open.

For Buckeyes coaches, are their linebacker and secondary positions cause for concern? Alarm? Panic?

None of the above, say coach Ryan Day and defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs. They are pleased with the progress those units made in the 15 spring practices. They are confident the back seven will be ready when the season starts.

“I’m very encouraged by what we did this spring on defense in general,” Day said Friday. “I think we have some really good young talent back there.”

Much of that talent got force-fed this spring. Linebackers Dallas Gant and Mitchell Melton and projected starting cornerbacks Sevyn Banks and Cameron Brown were out or limited by injuries. In addition, safety Marcus Hooker has been suspended since mid-March after he was charged with operating a vehicle while impaired. Coombs said he had no update on Hooker’s status.

Cornerback Sevyn Banks, right, was among the members of Ohio State's back seven on defense who were out or limited by injuries this spring.

Day said the Buckeyes expect to get all of the injured players back before the season.

“That was frustrating that these guys weren't able to get as many reps in the spring as you would like,” he said. “But the good news is the cavalry is coming on this thing, and we're going to have really great depth back there. When you look at our numbers and where we're projected to go into preseason camp, I'm fired up about that.”

Cornerback Ryan Watts runs after intercepting a pass intended for wide receiver Garrett Wilson during the Ohio State football spring game on April 17.

Assuming Banks and Brown are healthy, it’s likely they’ll be the outside cornerbacks. Marcus Williamson returns as slot cornerback and Josh Proctor figures to be back at safety if the Buckeyes continue their single-safety approach.

But several young players will push for playing time in the secondary. Ryan Watts had the sole interception in the spring game, and his 6-foot-3 frame makes him an enticing prospect. Lathan Ransom, Lejond Cavazos, Cameron Martinez, Ronnie Hickman and Bryson Shaw are just some of the underclassmen capable of making an impact.

Lathan Ransom (12) is pushing for playing time at safety.

“We had, I think, 10 defensive backs that were over 450 reps in the spring,” Coombs said. “Those are team reps. That's not 7-on-7. That's not 1-on-1 against the best wide receivers in the country. All of those things that you need to develop your skill set, they were able to get an awful lot of work.”

Depth is much shakier at linebacker, where the Buckeyes must replace four decorated seniors. The ranks were so thin for the spring game that long-snapper Roen McCullough was pressed into duty there.

Linebacker Tommy Eichenberg (35) calls out a play during the spring game.

Teradja Mitchell and K’Vaughan Pope are seniors who’ve bided their time for a starting shot. Sophomores Tommy Eichenberg and Cody Simon took advantage of the extra reps.

“Tommy had a very good spring,” Coombs said. “Cody had a very good spring. K'Vaughan and Teradja played the best football that I've seen them play since they've been Buckeyes. So that corps of four guys had the opportunity to get a lot of work.”

Then there’s Craig Young, Hickman and Kourt Williams, who could play the hybrid safety/linebacker “bullet” position that looks to be revived in 2021.

Craig Young is a candidate to play the hybrid "bullet" position on defense.

“What we want to do is get our best 11 guys on the field,” Coombs said.

Day said he doesn’t want to overreact to what Alabama did against the Ohio State defense in terms of overhauling scheme. As disappointed as he was by that outcome, Day prefers to emphasize the grit his team showed to reach the College Football Playoff title game in a season loaded with pandemic hurdles.

“I'm very, very proud of what we accomplished,” Day said. “To make changes because of that (Alabama game) would be foolish because the things that were accomplished this year were amazing — some of the best coaching that I've seen and some of the best leadership that I've seen in my coaching career.”

Alabama had a historically potent offense, and the Buckeyes were without key defensive linemen Tommy Togiai and Tyreke Smith. Togiai is off to the NFL, but Smith is part of a deep defensive line that has the talent to put consistent pressure on the quarterback and be stout against the run. After all, the best pass defense is a good pass rush.

The next several months will be critical, Day and Coombs said, for the linebackers and defensive backs. The progress of the spring must continue.

“We're going to be much deeper in the secondary than we've been,” Days aid. “We're also going to be younger so there's a give and take there.

“But I think the future is very, very bright, and I’m really happy with where our recruiting is at and where the talent level is back there.”