COLUMBUS, Ohio – 84 games. 61 starts. That’s what you lose when you lose a pair of starting safeties, both to NFL, both with a year of eligibility left.
Throw in another 27 starts from a first-round draft pick – who also went to the NFL a year early – and you’ve got a pretty good understanding why so many people are concerned about Ohio State’s very inexperienced secondary.
Inexperienced, not young. With the considerable talent on the Buckeyes 2015 roster – most of which returned from a national championship winning 2014 team – a lot of players who might’ve already played elsewhere have been waiting in the wings for their chance to shine at Ohio State.
“Nobody is new to this except the freshman,” junior Erick Smith said Thursday. “We all love competition, so every day we’re going at each other. We’re all hungry, since the day we got in here, we’ve been hungry.We only have two young guys, everybody else has been in the program, so we really – as far as like experience – we have a lot of older guys.”
Not just older guys, but talented guys.
In 2014’s recruiting class, the Buckeyes signed three (Damon Webb, Marshon Lattimore, Erick Smith) defensive backs ranked within the country’s Top 75 players. In 2015? They signed five more defensive backs. Outside of special teams, none have played a significant role in Ohio State’s defense, but their time has come and they’re working hard for it.
Greg Schiano, Ohio State’s new safeties coach (and co-defensive coordinator), is happy with the way his group has been preparing for their moment, even if he knows they’ve got a lot of work to do.
“I sure am pleased the way they’re working,” Schiano told the media. “They’re working their tails off, we’re not very good yet, but we’re working our tails off. I think Malik Hooker has shown that he has the ability to be a really good player, now we need to do it consistently. I think Damon Webb has shown that in spurts, we need to do it consistently. The rest of the guys, I’d say the rest of them are just a notch below it’s not very far though. The thing that I like is they’re working their tails off, they really are. Trying to get better, competing.”
Reading between Schiano’s lines, you can infer that Malik Hooker, the lowest-ranked defensive back in Ohio State’s highly-touted 2014 class, appears to be written in as a starter – for now – in pen. Damon Webb, the highest-ranked defensive back in that class, seems to be penciled in to start opposite Hooker. Beyond that pair, the biggest question may how players like Smith and fellow junior Cam Burrows can contribute in 2016 as they bounce back from season-ending injuries in 2015. Schiano knows they’re talented but also recognizes that injury recovery is more than just physical therapy. Especially for Smith, who tore his ACL midway through 2015.
“Cam and Erick are a little different in that one is an ACL,” Schiano said when asked about the progress each player has made. “I think Erick won’t have true confidence – no matter what he thinks or says – until he goes out there in a scrimmage and you know, plays live football. Cam I think is a little different, although I’m not trying to downplay his surgery, I just think it’s a little different.”
So the next question is simple: how close are they to be ready to push Hooker and Webb for meaningful minutes?
“You know, the cream will rise to the top and we’ll find four guys that we can go in (to the season) with a two-deep,” Schiano said. “Right now the whole thing is wide open. We haven’t named anybody (a starter). The one position is a little different, so it takes a little different character traits as opposed to the strong safety. I think certain guys, we’re trying to decide – if you remember in the spring we played them at both – to try and get everybody a look at both sides. Now we’re starting to zero in, you know? We’ve got a game coming up here in less than a month.”
The “one position” Schiano is referring to – what Damon Webb called the “falcon position” – is sort of a hybrid between the free safety position and an extra cornerback. Getting players ready – that haven’t played much of the free safety or the strong safety position yet – is a challenge. Determining who is best for each spot, that’s on Schiano, Luke Fickell and Urban Meyer to figure out. Oh yeah, the guys wearing the jerseys may get to give a little input, too.
“The two positions do similar things at times, almost identical things at times, but then in other calls they do uniquely different things,” Schiano said. “So, someone who plays the strong safety may be stronger in this set of skills, and less in this set of skills. Where someone who plays the falcon, or free safety, is vice versa.
“I always ask them what they feel better at, but at the end of the day we have to make the decision. Myself and Urban and Luke, I always want to know (their input). You try and hope that what’s best for the individual is what’s best for the team but that’s not always the case.”
If you’re a player like Erick Smith, who is just eager to get back on the field, what’s best for the player may very well be what’s best for the team.
“In the safety unit, we have this motto – ‘JAE’ – job, alignment, eyes, and all go through that process whether we’re at the strong or the free, it helps everybody,” Smith said about the difficulties of playing two positions, sometimes in one practice. “I’m working at both right now, strong and free, just trying to learn both of them. I could play both, I could play nickel. Last camp, I was at nickel for a few practices, but (right now) just free and strong.”
Ultimately, the position doesn’t matter. The standard of excellence at Ohio State does. That’s ultimately what will make this season a success, or a failure, for the Buckeyes defense.
“We’ve all gotten together and talked (the safeties),” Smith said. “We want to be the standard of the defense. A lot of people are looking down on us this year and we know (that). We want to (meet) the standard and that’s what we set for ourselves.”
Inexperienced, but not young. Eager, but not impatient. That’s what Greg Schiano has in his defensive backfield. Throw out the word “young.” Erick Smith doesn’t want to hear it and he doesn’t want Ohio State fans to worry, either. The expectation is the expectation. Always.
“It’s overblown. I mean, the household names have left, but the talent is still here,” Smith said of the experience issue. “We don’t rebuild, we reload. We still have guys, people that everybody knows are gone, but we got it.
“We’re going to go out there and we’re going to do our thing. There ain’t no mystery here. Our standards are always high, we never lower our standards. We’ve got to be better, if not just as good, as the people before us. “