Will the 'bullet' position gain a more prominent role in Ohio State football's defense?

Joey Kaufman
The Columbus Dispatch

OSU football 10 Questions series

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of stories looking at the 10 most pressing questions facing Ohio State football as it prepares for the 2021 season. For previous parts of the series, visit Dispatch.com.

Today, Part 5: Will the 'bullet' position take hold this year?

When Greg Mattison joined Ohio State’s coaching staff as a defensive co-coordinator in 2019, he installed a position that held significant intrigue.

It was known as the “bullet,” a hybrid linebacker-safety role, and it captured people’s attention because its flashy name harkened to a program tradition.

Ronnie Hickman (14) was the No. 3-ranked player in New Jersey and, after redshirting in 2019, made three tackles last year.

Since the 1990s, the Buckeyes’ linebackers have been referred to as the “Silver Bullets.” For a position that would involve linebacker responsibilities mixed with safety duties, it made sense. It kept one-half of the nickname.

But the position has been used sparingly as the Buckeyes continued to rely on a base 4-3 defense.

The trend might change this fall, even though Mattison retired in January.

10 Questions series: See all the issues facing the Buckeyes as the approach camp

The 2021 Ohio State football schedule:Times, dates and results for the Buckeyes

Rob Oller:Ohio State practically guaranteed a spot in 12-team college football playoff

“I think it’s going to be a piece of what we do, absolutely,” defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said in April following spring practice.

There have been signs that the team is embracing the idea.

During portions of practices open to reporters, the defense lined up in a 4-2-5 formation, using only two linebackers in favor of adding someone at the “bullet” position, and in the spring game, it used the scheme with Ronnie Hickman and Craig Young at the hybrid spot.

Coombs praised the development of Hickman and Young, both third-year sophomores looking for larger roles.

“I love the way these guys competed this spring, and I’m excited for their fall,” he said.

Other circumstances likely shaped how Coombs positioned his side of the ball.

For one, the Buckeyes had fewer healthy linebackers due to injuries, making it a little easier to add another defensive back or hybrid defender.

Third-years sophomore Craig Young had five tackles last year but showed great promise in the spring.

Coombs acknowledged the team’s available personnel would shape its approach. That was the case last fall when Ohio State had a lot of depth at linebacker with Tuf Borland, Baron Browning, Justin Hilliard and Pete Werner, meaning the team could easily kept three of them on the field.

"Everybody would agree that, that group had experience and talent and could play,” Coombs said. “That was the strength of our defense.”

There’s less experience now. All four of those linebackers were seniors and left for the NFL. It’s possible, as a result, the Buckeyes will be less linebacker-heavy and use more defensive backs or the “bullet."

Coombs also acknowledged another reality: Formations hinge on how opposing offenses line up, and the "bullet" lends flexibility in matchups.

“You have to make decisions based on game plan of how you're going to attack the offense based on how they're going to attack you,” Coombs said. “If you're playing in the spread game, and you've got teams that are going to spread the field, throw the ball around a lot, you've got to make sure that you have a plan to handle that.

“If you're going to play the teams that are going to pack it in and play with two tight ends and run the ball and those kinds of things, you got to have a plan for that. What the ‘bullet,’ position affords you the opportunity to do is to try to play both sets of personnel that the offense has to offer without necessarily having to change your personnel on first and second down.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman

Next: Can Ohio State raise its sack totals?

Get more Ohio State football news by listening to our podcasts