Ohio State Buckeyes: Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown

Players to watch in spring: No. 2

February, 13, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The offseason conditioning program is in full swing. Signing day has come and gone. Blink and spring practice will already be here.

[+] EnlargeVonn Bell
Zach Bolinger/Icon SMIThe Buckeyes need safety Vonn Bell to be a game-changer in 2014.
Ohio State is less than a month away from getting back on the field and starting preparations for the 2014 season, and those days probably can't go by fast enough for a program coming off consecutive losses after a 24-game winning streak. To help pass the time, we're counting down the top five players who are facing critical springs, either because it's a turning point in their careers or the Buckeyes are counting heavily on them to fill vacant jobs as they try to get back in contention for a national title again in the fall. The series flips to the defensive side of the ball today at a spot that will be critical in the secondary.

No. 2: Vonn Bell, safety

  • By the numbers: The debut season for the defensive back was largely spent on special teams as he chipped in 19 tackles, but he ended the season on a high note by earning the start in the Discover Orange Bowl and nabbing his first career interception.
  • What’s at stake: The Buckeyes had all kinds of problems defending the pass a year ago, and that was with a group of experienced veterans who were supposed to make the secondary a team strength. Now they have to replace safeties Christian Bryant, C.J. Barnett and Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown, not to mention cornerback Bradley Roby, and it will be up to a couple of classes stocked with some of the most sought-after recruits in the country at the position to prove the Buckeyes are in good hands moving forward and capable of exceeding the low standard that was set last season. The buzz around Bell that started with his signing-day decision to join Ohio State a year ago has only become louder with his performance in the loss to Clemson, and the defense desperately needs him to be a game-changer in the secondary.
  • Best-case scenario: There’s no question Bell will be lining up with the first team when camp opens in March, and there’s not much doubt that he’ll be staying in that spot for a while. New co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Chris Ash was brought in to mold the Buckeyes into a more aggressive outfit, and that figures to be well-suited to Bell’s athletic ability given both his reputation and the glimpse of his talents at the end of last season. Ohio State will also be monitoring the partnership with the other expected starter at safety, and developing chemistry between Tyvis Powell and Bell in the spring could go a long way toward repairing the beleaguered defense in the fall.
Breaking down the critical areas and key players as No. 7 Ohio State closes the season against No. 12 Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl (TV: ESPN, 8:30 p.m.).

Embrace the challenge: As if the Buckeyes haven't had enough challenges thrown their way defensively down the stretch, things have only become more difficult for them despite having all the extra time to prepare for the bowl game after dropping the Big Ten championship against Michigan State. The top pass-rushing threat is at home after Noah Spence was suspended by the conference for three games. The most skilled defensive back is on the shelf thanks to a bone bruise for Bradley Roby. Starting middle linebacker Curtis Grant is still banged up. Even a player who was already ruled out for this game received bad news this week with Christian Bryant's appeal for a medical redshirt denied by the NCAA. That is a lot of adversity for the Buckeyes regardless of how explosive the offense their facing is, and they can either take the challenge head on or shrink in the spotlight.

Secondary shakeup: Urban Meyer vowed changes were coming for his beleaguered defense, and a couple have already come into focus with tweaks to the personnel. Picked on down the stretch, senior Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown is expected to be replaced by Tyvis Powell at safety, and talented freshman Vonn Bell will slide into the nickel back role and see his most extensive playing time of his debut season just before it ends. Those two guys represent the future for the Buckeyes at safety, and they will certainly have their hands full against Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd and his talented cast of receivers. No matter what happens, Powell and Bell figure to at least gain some valuable experience heading into an offseason where starting roles are likely to become permanent for them.

Passing fancy: Braxton Miller can change a game without ever throwing a pass thanks to his fleet feet, but the Buckeyes would certainly like to see his accurate arm again. The junior hasn't completed more than 13 throws or topped 160 yards since the first week of November, and while Ohio State still put up a lot of points during that dip in his passing totals, the lack of balance caught up with it against the Spartans. Aside from winning a BCS game, Miller is also trying to impress NFL scouts and prove that he's ready for the next level, and that combination should provide plenty of incentive for him to put his best foot -- or arm -- forward.

Fond farewell: For all the seniors have both been through and accomplished during their careers, there is plenty for them to feel proud about as they suit up for the program for the final time. They battled through the adversity that came with the NCAA sanctions, posted a perfect record in 2012 and a handful provided memorable moments that Ohio State will never forget. Carlos Hyde's relentless rushing style, Kenny Guiton's invaluable work off the bench at quarterback and the physical blocking of four senior starters on the offensive line, just to name a few, have certainly left a mark for the Buckeyes. All of them should be properly motivated to finish on top against the Tigers.

On the Marcus: Noah Spence obviously wasn't working alone as the defensive line quickly went from question mark to one of the most effective units on the team, but the sophomore clearly deserved plenty of credit as he led the team in sacks with 8 and chipped in 14.5 tackles for a loss overall. Now facing a three-game suspension that starts with the Discover Orange Bowl, at least temporarily the Buckeyes again have to replace a starter up front after rebuilding the defensive line completely after last season. Jamal Marcus moved up from linebacker to defensive end as part of that process, and in a supporting role he offered a pair of sacks among his 15 tackles, forced a fumble and showed glimpses of the kind of athleticism that have allowed Spence to thrive in the opposing backfield. Against Clemson, Marcus will have to prove he can do it for an extended period of time, particularly since it will be critical for the Buckeyes to disrupt Boyd and try to force some mistakes with the football.

Ohio State bowl players to watch

December, 19, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A closer look at the key players for No. 7 Ohio State and what's on the line for them as the Buckeyes prepare for a marquee matchup in the Discover Orange Bowl against No. 12 Clemson.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller completed only 46 percent of his passes in Ohio State's last four games this season.
QB Braxton Miller: The spotlight is always on the junior quarterback, but he appears to be welcoming even more attention on his game heading into the postseason and what might be an audition for NFL scouts and general managers as he weighs his options for next season. Miller struggled throwing the ball down the stretch, and the Buckeyes clearly were limited offensively in the Big Ten title game against Michigan State. Unable to throw downfield, they had no way to unpack the crowded box aimed at slowing him and Carlos Hyde down as rushing threats.

The biggest question about Miller's professional future always has been about unlocking his potential as a passer, because the rest of his talents aren't up for debate. He might benefit from another season with the program, but if Miller is able to carve up a Clemson defense that ranks No. 16 in the nation in pass defense, that might tip the scales for him to skip his senior season.

DT Michael Bennett: The junior already is committed to returning for another season with the Buckeyes after his breakout campaign up front. That will give the program a complete unit returning just a year after having to replace all four starters. Bennett was somewhat overlooked on the postseason awards circuit, but he quietly has become one of the most important pieces of the defense and an absolute terror for opponents when he's healthy.

A couple of nagging injuries kept him from having that impact quite as consistently as perhaps Ohio State would want, but he still finished the season with 11.5 tackles for loss and 7 sacks. Against a high-powered Clemson offense with a productive quarterback, Bennett will play a critical role in collapsing the pocket, pressuring Tajh Boyd and trying to force some mistakes to help out a battered secondary.

S Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell: Urban Meyer has vowed changes, though for the most part the Ohio State coach has kept any that he might be considering close to his vest. But when it comes to personnel, he at least mentioned one potential candidate by name after practice on Wednesday, and it could be time for Bell to get thrown into the fire as the Buckeyes start preparing for the future. Meyer wouldn't make that move, though, unless it could have some short-term benefit in a BCS game.

Bell's solid work on special teams, extra opportunities to develop him on the practice field this month and a few recent issues on the field for Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown might have opened the door for the touted freshman against the Tigers. Powell has been a fixture in the nickel and conceivably could make a smoother transition into an expanded role given his edge in experience, but either way, he and Bell seem likely to see more of the field in the Discover Orange Bowl.

Bowl prep: Ohio State's to-do list

December, 12, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The ultimate goal slipped away along with the longest winning streak in school history, but Ohio State certainly isn't short on motivation with one game left to play.

For starters, the No. 7 Buckeyes are still in the BCS with a marquee matchup against No. 12 Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. After dropping the Big Ten championship against the best opponent they've faced since Urban Meyer took over the program, taking on the Tigers also represents another opportunity to show off nationally and perhaps earn a bit of redemption. And, obviously, the Buckeyes can potentially start a brand new winning streak if they can knock off Clemson on Jan. 3.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State chased down Braxton Miller and Ohio State in a memorable Big Ten championship game.
But there's plenty of time between that date and now, and Ohio State also has no shortage of things to work on during bowl practices this month. After not getting the chance to put on the pads last December, it surely won't be taken the workouts for granted this year -- and they also need them for what could be a shootout with the Tigers.

Shore up the secondary: This issue is nothing new for the Buckeyes, but they need to make a correction now more than ever if they're going to end the season on a high note.

Coverage breakdowns, poor communication and missed opportunities nearly cost Ohio State a perfect regular season as Michigan picked it apart in late November. Michigan State actually finished the job a week later with Connor Cook making it look far too easy to throw for more than 300 yards, a feat which would have been stunning to even consider back in the preseason with all the veteran talent returning in the backend for the Buckeyes.

The loss of Christian Bryant to a fractured ankle in September was a huge blow, and the secondary never seemed to fully recover from it. The Buckeyes certainly appear to have a bright future after landing arguably the nation's best class of cornerbacks and safeties last year, but those newcomers weren't quite ready for regular roles as freshmen and need another offseason of development before they can make a difference.

That won't do much good against the Tigers, though, which puts the pressure on Bryant's replacement at safety, Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown, and the other three starters to raise their games to slow down a team which is more than capable of airing it out and scoring points in bunches.

Brax to basics: Braxton Miller remains one of the most dangerous open-field runners in the country, and his individual rushing numbers have improved late in the season. But that might be out of necessity, because his passing numbers have dipped dramatically after showing off the improvement in his arm during a red-hot stretch in late October and the first week of November.

Since carving up hapless Purdue with 19 completions on just 23 attempts, Miller and the passing attack have struggled to generate anything consistently, and the junior has hit on less than 50 percent of his throws in three of the last four games. The weather can partially be blamed for the recent problems with his accuracy, but the Buckeyes were playing indoors last week against the Spartans when Miller was often missing the target during an 8-for-21 performance.

Miller has shown off his arm strength and accuracy plenty of times, and there's not really any question about what he's capable of leading the offense. But his footwork and decision-making have let him down at times late in the season, and a couple weeks to go back and stress fundamentals could do wonders for him ahead of a showcase game against Clemson.

Eyes on the road: There was no way to truly replace the bowl practices Ohio State missed last year due to the NCAA sanctions that kept it out of the postseason, though it did inspire "The Chase" as Meyer challenged his players to make up for the workouts on their own at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

But the coaching staff couldn't be around to offer instruction then, and the full practices in December are often invaluable for young players who didn't see the field much as they try to springboard into larger roles the following season. Considering both the lack of depth at key positions like linebacker and wide receiver and the need to replace veterans all over the offensive line and in the secondary, the coaching staff will need to make the absolute most out of its chance to get its hands on the players this month.

The Buckeyes, of course, are trying to win a game. But they'll need to bring along five-star safety Vonn Bell to groom him for a much larger role in the secondary next year. They have to find more help for Taylor Decker and likely starter Pat Elflein on the offensive line. And even with the possibility of having all three starters back at linebacker if Ryan Shazier decides to stick around for another season, Ohio State could clearly use some help filling out the rotation from Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson.

The balancing act is making sure the current starters are ready for a bowl game while still prepping their future replacements. But since the Buckeyes couldn't do either a year ago, that challenge is surely going to be readily embraced.

Bye week to-do list: Ohio State

October, 11, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The first half of the season is in the books, and "The Chase" is still right on schedule for Ohio State.

But even with an undefeated record and what appears to be a pretty manageable slate of games coming up, the Buckeyes still have some areas to clean up if they're going to be a factor in the national title race. They could have used a bye one week earlier instead of taking on Northwestern on the heels of a significant injury to a starter, but they survived that road test anyway and can regroup without having suffered a loss all the same. Here's what has likely had the attention of coach Urban Meyer as he sets the course for the stretch run.

[+] EnlargeJared Abbrederis
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin's Jared Abbrederis found a lot of room in the Ohio State secondary on Sept. 28. That's an area the Buckeyes will try to improve during their bye week.
Sorting out the secondary: The defense made some second-half adjustments against the Wildcats and did enough to slow down a dangerous attack to get another victory, but last week wasn't the first time the Buckeyes have looked susceptible to big plays in the secondary this season. There was even more attention on the defensive backs, particularly Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown, as the loss of Christian Bryant to a season-ending broken ankle has added some uncertainty to what was expected to be perhaps the strength of the team with all the veteran experience in the unit. Even star cornerback Bradley Roby has been victimized a few times, and there has appeared to be some communication breakdowns and blown assignments against the pass in previous games against California and Wisconsin, which will make cleaning up the fundamentals in coverage a priority.

Keep harping on Miller's mechanics: The offseason reviews about Braxton Miller's improved ability with his arm were unanimously positive and have largely been proved correct, but neither the Buckeyes nor the junior quarterback can consider the job complete just yet. Miller missed at least one throw that should have been a touchdown against the Wildcats and at times looked a little shaky in his decision-making, but those issues didn't wind up costing Ohio State anything in a gritty win on the road. Coming back from missing nearly three weeks with a knee sprain, Miller might have had just enough rust on him to keep him from operating at full capacity, though there have certainly been glimpses of what he's capable now as a passer, most notably in the scoring barrage early against Wisconsin. Focusing again on his footwork and getting more live reps on the practice field should only help him become more consistent in the passing game.

Stay hungry, healthy: The Buckeyes are obviously aware of how the schedule shakes out, and it's not hard for anybody to deduce that they'll be heavy favorites in each of the next five games. But it's far too early to look ahead to the matchup with Michigan waiting at the end of November, and with no margin for error in the national title picture, the Buckeyes will have to maintain both the chip on their shoulder and the one-game-at-a-time approach that has served them so well since Meyer took over. Getting an extra week to make sure Miller is fully comfortable with his left knee is also helpful, even though it doesn't appear to have really hampered him much over the last two weeks. But the Buckeyes should really be boosted by the return of defensive tackle Tommy Schutt from a broken foot that has kept him on the sideline since training camp, expanding the rotation up front and providing some extra beef to stop the rush.

Five things: Ohio State-Northwestern

October, 5, 2013
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The schedule doesn't appear to offer many more hurdles for No. 4 Ohio State, but there's a big one in its way at No. 16 Northwestern (TV: ABC, 8 p.m.) on Saturday. The Big Ten showdown comes fully stocked with talent, stakes and what figures to be an energized crowd under the lights.

Title chase is on: The Buckeyes haven't exactly hidden their goals for the season since putting up their enormous banner in the spring signifying the start of "The Chase," and this trip to Northwestern has always stood out as a defining moment in the pursuit. Ohio State typically gets strong support on the road, and the environment might not be overly hostile, but the Wildcats can make life difficult with a versatile offense and an opportunistic defense. Northwestern is also unbeaten and could put itself in the conversation for something more than a Big Ten title with a win, giving both teams plenty to play for as October action kicks off.

Secondary concern: Ohio State is still dealing with the disappointment of losing senior Christian Bryant to a broken ankle, and the players and coaches might not ever truly get over it this season. But the Buckeyes obviously have to fill the safety's on-field role somehow, and the schedule isn't going to stop to allow them extra time to process their emotions or tinker with the rotation. Corey Brown is next in line and will start alongside C.J. Barnett, which will continue to give the defense two veterans at safety. But Tyvis Powell and true freshman Vonn Bell should see expanded roles in the nickel and dime packages moving forward as well, and Northwestern is capable of giving all those defenders a stern test.

Individual awards up for grabs, too: Braxton Miller won't be able to recoup the opportunities he lost to pile up stats while effectively missing three games in September, but his return last week against Wisconsin certainly put him back on the map with Heisman Trophy voters anyway. The junior quarterback was superb delivering the football, showing off his improved arm with four touchdown passes, claiming yet another win over a ranked opponent and keeping his team on track to compete for trophies at the end of the season. Another performance like last week's could easily restore his standing among the top candidates for the game's highest individual honor.

Hall passed: Jordan Hall is again listed as the starting running back on Ohio State's depth chart, but that didn't mean anything a week ago when Carlos Hyde actually filled that job when the game started and then took almost every rushing attempt that went to a tailback in the win over Wisconsin. Urban Meyer lamented Hall's lack of touches shortly after the victory was in the books, and the Ohio State coach has continued to stress the senior's value in the attack throughout practice this week. But for however the depth chart might read, Hyde is clearly the top choice in the backfield, and finding ways to keep Hall involved while still getting the football in Dontre Wilson's hands is going to be a chore.

Roller coaster for Roby: The All-American skills were on display at times, but overall Bradley Roby delivered something of a mixed bag a week ago at cornerback. He made an athletic play in the backfield, but the tackle for a loss appeared to cost him a bit physically. He made an interception and broke up three passes, but he was also burned a couple timesm and Ohio State gave up more than 200 yards receiving to Jared Abbrederis. The junior's natural athleticism isn't up for debate, but Roby will have his ability to bounce back from an uneven performance put to the test. The reconfigured secondary will need him at his best against the Wildcats.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The announcement was still fresh in mind, barely more than 24 hours old as Urban Meyer reported for the first meeting of the day.

Saturday night’s win over Wisconsin was creeping into Sunday morning when the Ohio State coach walked to a podium he would soon smack after revealing star safety Christian Bryant had been lost for the season with a broken ankle, and it was still early on Monday when his staff met at 7 a.m. to talk about replacing him.

[+] EnlargeJared Abbrederis
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsCorey Pittsburgh Brown (No. 3) will likely get the first shot at replacing Christian Bryant for the Buckeyes.
The emotions might still have been raw given Bryant’s importance as more than just a tenacious tackler thanks to the vocal leadership and veteran leadership he provided the Buckeyes in the secondary. But there was nothing Meyer could do to change the fact that Bryant was no longer a part of the plan for trying to stop No. 16 Northwestern on the road this week, and finding somebody to fill that void will stay at the top of the agenda until No. 4 Ohio State finds its best option.

“This is not an easy one,” Meyer said. “Last year, I would have put my hands all over that, because I didn't really know [safeties coach] Everett Withers very well. But he's an excellent football coach, and when we met this morning, I wanted opinions [from the entire staff], and I'm going to give mine.

“And we are going to meet again at 2 o'clock and I want to hear what they are going to do.”

After all that brainstorming, the Buckeyes don’t necessarily need to have identified a permanent solution, but they will need to settle on somebody to line up in Bryant’s spot at safety when they hit the practice field on Tuesday afternoon.

The list has already been whittled to three defensive backs, with Corey “Pittsburgh” Brown the most likely candidate given his experience and some consistent production already this season from his role in the dime package. But nickel safety Tyvis Powell is also a potential target for a starting role in the base formation, and talented true freshman Vonn Bell also gave the Buckeyes something to consider during those conversations on Monday.

But whoever ultimately emerges and takes over Bryant’s job moving forward, the shoes are going to be extremely difficult to fill -- and there isn’t going to be much time to get used to wearing them either.

“This is a very complicated offense,” Meyer said. “It’s one that's going to require [good communication], and one of the disappointing things we had last Saturday was not just a couple guys got beat, but we had some errors in checks and communication.

“We can't have that, and with that position open now, that's a big part of it.”

Brown’s familiarity with the system alongside fellow veteran defensive backs Bradley Roby and C.J. Barnett might give him the edge to claim that spot, and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs indicated the senior would likely be getting the first crack at it.

Brown had actually been nipping at Bryant’s heels statistically so far this season, with Bryant only leading Brown by one tackle through five games. And Brown had also chipped in a tackle for a loss and broken up a pass, showing signs of the type of versatility the Buckeyes crave in the secondary.

Bryant, though, has set a high standard for stuffing the box score in a variety of different ways, and at least from an on-field perspective, Coombs and the rest of the defensive staff will be watching closely early in the week to make sure they find somebody capable of providing some similar production across the board.

“I think as we sit here this afternoon that Pitt Brown will go in there and play,” Coombs said. “I don’t know exactly the configuration of how all those guys are going to fit going into the week, and some of that will be developed and discussed during practice.

“But our guys, those are versatile players back there and I think that gets understated somewhat.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean the loss of Bryant has been overstated. But all the coaches can do now is show up for their early meetings and work on a new plan.

Loss of Bryant major hurdle for OSU

September, 29, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- As he struggled to find the words at the podium to sum up the loss of a captain, Urban Meyer instead resorted to one powerful gesture.

The sound the hand of the Ohio State coach made as it smacked the hardwood echoed throughout the media room as Saturday night's 31-24 win over Wisconsin spilled into Sunday.

And the ripple effect is likely to be similarly felt throughout the rest of the season for the Buckeyes. A defense that was already low on veterans and likely will be without one of its most respected captains for the rest of the season after Christian Bryant fractured his ankle and was immediately taken to the hospital for surgery.

"He's our leader," Meyer said. "There's no doubt -- if not the leader of the defense, one of them. And he's just devastated."

Meyer didn't bother hiding the fact he was feeling the same way. And while he almost exclusively focused on Bryant's intangibles and how much it hurt to watch a tireless worker lose the rest of his senior season, the next time Meyer talks about his fallen captain, he'll have to address how the Buckeyes will replace his quantifiable production.

Bryant has finished no lower than third on the team in tackles over the last two seasons, has demonstrated an ability to come up with turnovers in critical moments and has coupled his deep knowledge of the Ohio State scheme with underrated athleticism to become one of the most consistent playmakers on the roster on either side of the ball. And while the Buckeyes are perhaps deeper in the secondary than they are at any other position group, there will certainly be a drop-off regardless of how they reshuffle their safeties.

Fellow senior safety Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown has thrived in his role as an extra defensive back when Ohio State has gone to its dime and seven-defensive back packages, and he'd actually made just one less tackle than Bryant this season going into the game on Saturday. He's likely going to see his responsibilities expanded now into the base defense, and if the Buckeyes can get numbers comparable to what Brown has posted through five games, they might survive just fine.

But whether it's Brown or perhaps true freshman Vonn Bell pressed into a bigger job, Bryant's leadership, knowledge and bone-rattling hits aren't likely going to be replaced. And Meyer surely knew that before punishing his podium.

"Just tough news," Meyer said. "Incredible leadership skills, and he's going to be even more valuable outside of football."

Inside the game, the Buckeyes have no choice now but to move on with the next guy behind Bryant.

Position preview: Defensive backs

August, 26, 2013
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Breaking down the Ohio State roster with training camp over and the program turning its attention to the opener on Saturday against Buffalo.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Top of the depth chart: Bradley Roby and Doran Grant at cornerback and Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett at safety, with Tyvis Powell at the star position in nickel situations. (Note: Roby will miss the opener because of suspension.)

Tyvis Powell
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteRedshirt freshman Tyvis Powell has earned a spot as the nickel cornerback.
Next in line: Armani Reeves won a heated competition against the next wave of Ohio State cornerbacks during training camp, and he’ll replace Roby in the starting lineup for the opener. Corey “Pittsburgh” Brown will add to the rotation at safety and should see plenty of action in the dime package.

New faces: Arguably the deepest, most talented class of defensive backs in the country signed in February with the Buckeyes, and they could make a mark as early as this fall, given the combination of athleticism and the likelihood coordinator Luke Fickell will be leaning heavily on his nickel and dime personnel. That should open up more potential playing time for cover guys like Gareon Conley, Eli Apple and Cam Burrows, and safety Vonn Bell could emerge quickly as an option at the star spot.

Recruiting trail: The Buckeyes are right back at it again, having already secured a commitment from ESPN 300 cornerback Damon Webb to add to the depth in the secondary. They aren’t done yet, either, but Webb (Detroit/Cass Technical) currently rates as the crown jewel of the class with a ranking of 84 from the RecruitingNation experts.

Flexibility: Roby is locked in at the premier spot at cornerback, and he’s not going anywhere once he returns from suspension if he stays healthy. Grant had a productive spring and has earned his starting spot, but he’ll face challenges from Reeves and the freshmen to stay there. That’s one spot in the secondary that bears monitoring and could potentially see a change, as there certainly shouldn't be any openings at safety as productive, veteran seniors man both spots.

Notable numbers:

  • A season after leading the nation in passes defended and tying the school record for pass breakups with 17, Roby doesn’t have all that much to prove in what seems likely to be his last season with the Buckeyes before declaring early for the NFL draft. But he did only manage a pair of interceptions a year ago, both coming in the easy victory over Nebraska, and that’s one area of his game where there’s still plenty of room to grow.
  • Perhaps overshadowed by Roby and linebacker Ryan Shazier statistically, Bryant has somewhat quietly put together an impressive all-around resume that shows how valuable he has been to the defense as a whole. Heading into his senior campaign, Bryant ranks second among active Buckeyes in tackles, passes broken up and forced fumbles while bringing a consistent, physical presence to the lineup in 22 starts.
Big question: Is there such a thing as too much reliance on defensive backs?

Since spring, the answer has pretty clearly been a resounding “no” for the Buckeyes. Part of the reason for the heavy workload of the nickel and dime personnel is certainly the lack of depth at linebacker, but the amount of experienced talent returning in the secondary and the expanding influence of spread offenses have combined to make for an easy decision for Ohio State to roll out five or six defensive backs at a time. As long as players such as Powell, Brown or Bell are able to do work against the run and provide the kind of sure-handed tackling normally required of a linebacker, the Buckeyes will keep sending out defensive backs in waves, leaning on the strength of that unit to lead from the back in the push for a national title.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Training camp hasn't even started yet. After that grueling month, there's still almost an entire season to be played before "The Game" that matters most.

But it's never too early to set the table for the feud between Ohio State and Michigan, and at BuckeyeNation and WolverineNation, we're doing it all week.

We looked back on Monday at some heroes and villains on both sides of the rivalry. Today we're looking ahead at the strengths and weaknesses that could decide the latest edition in the storied series, which is just more than four short months away.

STRENGTHS

Ground and pound:

Carlos Hyde
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesOhio State running back Carlos Hyde is poised for a big senior season.
The Ohio State rushing attack was potent enough a year ago, but it's only added more experience and weapons to the mix now. By November, it might be almost impossible to slow down the Buckeyes on the ground as they incorporate the new pieces to the attack and potentially get more support from the passing game. Braxton Miller is obviously a threat to score from anywhere on the field, and if Carlos Hyde makes the kind of improvement he's targeted in terms of making defenders miss at the second level, that one-two combination will continue to rank among the best in the country, particularly with four seniors back on the offensive line.

But it might be the added dimension of a healthy Jordan Hall or a true freshman such as Dontre Wilson or Jalin Marshall at the hybrid, Pivot position that gives opponents even more fits. Or maybe it's a backfield that can be loaded up with as many as three talented rushers, rolling out Rod Smith or Bri'onte Dunn in a diamond formation with Hyde and Miller. Either way, the Buckeyes have the personnel to give Michigan a workout in the front seven.

Air patrol:

The expectations are growing for Michigan's passing attack now that Devin Gardner has the position all to himself, and he'll have plenty of time to develop and find a rhythm before meeting up with the Buckeyes. But there might be no stiffer test in the country than the one Ohio State can present a quarterback thanks to its overflowing talent and veteran savvy in the secondary. Cornerback Bradley Roby and safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett would make life difficult on their own, but the Buckeyes can complement that with another senior safety in reserve in Corey "Pittsburgh"' Brown, a junior cornerback looking to make a name for himself in Doran Grant and a class of incoming defensive backs that represented perhaps the best signing day haul in the nation.

The Buckeyes plan to get as many of those guys involved as possible this season, which could make the secondary even more fearsome by the time Gardner gets a crack at them.

WEAKNESSES

Middle ground:

The fresh faces are almost everywhere in the front seven, but heading to training camp, there's not all that much uncertainty about who will be filling which shoes left behind by the defenders who helped the Buckeyes go unbeaten last fall. Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington are poised for breakouts at end and Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry appear ready to lend a hand next to Ryan Shazier at linebacker, but there are two critical spots on the inside of the line that bear monitoring as Ohio State prepares to stop opposing rushing attacks. Michael Bennett is close to a lock for one role, but there could be a heated competition for reps next to him to complete the rotation. Tommy Schutt battled injuries throughout spring practice, but he has the ability to be a future star. Joel Hale is a grinder and respected leader, and the junior could be an intriguing option as well. And if big Chris Carter can manage his weight, his massive frame clearly could fill up some rushing lanes.

By November, the Buckeyes figure to have long ago answered those questions up front and should have also built up plenty of experience. But that will be at the top of the priority list as Ohio State chases a Big Ten title -- and keeps an eye on its rival.

Kicking it:

More often than not, the Buckeyes had the edge over opponents in the third phase. But considering how much value Urban Meyer places on special teams and how much production he expects, Ohio State wasn't all that close to giving him what he wanted a year ago. Kicker Drew Basil wasn't used all that much, aside from the season-ending win over Michigan, but among his 11 attempts last season were a pair of missed field goals from less than 39 yards that didn't exactly inspire confidence. The Buckeyes will be breaking in a new punter as well, and winning the field position battle is as important under Meyer as it has always been under previous regimes at Ohio State -- putting pressure on some young contributors to make plays in kickoff and punt coverage.

Philly Brown took a couple punts back for touchdowns last year and the "Freak Show" punt block unit made itself a nuisance a few times, but Meyer and newly-promoted special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs keep the bar pretty high in that area of the game. And in tightly contested rivalries, it can make all the difference.

Rising stock: Tyvis Powell

April, 29, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- With spring practice in the books and Ohio State heading into its offseason conditioning program, BuckeyeNation is looking at the players who boosted their stock with the program the most during those 15 workouts. The offense went first last week, and it's now followed up with a handful of defenders who will be in line for heavy workloads this fall.

No. 5: Tyvis Powell
[+] EnlargeTyvis Powell
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteRedshirt freshman Tyvis Powell has burst into the secondary rotation this spring.

  • Who: The defensive back spent his first year on campus on the sideline and in the crosshairs of position coach Kerry Coombs, who peppered Powell every day during his redshirt season with tough love designed to bring out his best and develop him into a contributor in the secondary. The results appear to be paying off more quickly than the Buckeyes might have hoped, with Powell claiming a first-team role in the nickel and dime packages at the start of camp and holding on to it all the way to the end. Powell brings intriguing size for a cornerback at 6-foot-3, with length that can be a nuisance for offenses in the passing game and enough strength to come up and support against the run, as well.
  • Spring progress: The first steps forward apparently were taken during the offseason conditioning program, where Powell's work ethic and physical development stood out enough for the defensive coaching staff to reward him with a prominent role on the first day of practice, despite not playing him for a single down last fall. Powell still has room to grow in coverage, but his usefulness against both the pass and the run, and Ohio State's plan to play with its nickel personnel more often, figures to give him plenty of chances to make his mark.
  • Jockeying for position: There might not be a position with more competition than the Star spot in the nickel, given the depth of talent in the secondary -- both on campus already and arriving in the fall from Urban Meyer's second signing class with the Buckeyes. Veteran safety Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown, cornerback Armani Reeves and recovering sophomore Devan Bogard all will be pushing for action, just for starters. And a group of incoming freshmen led by safety Vonn Bell could also raise the bar for Powell if he's going to stick around with the first unit.
  • He said it: "Tyvis, I feel like his confidence is through the roof right now. He's making plays every day in practice. He's a tall, long guy who can make plays in the nickel right now, and I feel like he's stepping up and doing a pretty good job for us." -- senior safety Christian Bryant
  • Closing number: There weren't all that many chances to make a play coming Powell's way in the spring game, but he capitalized on the handful that did with three tackles. The redshirt freshman also chipped in a pass breakup, one of only three recorded for the Gray team against an offense led by Braxton Miller.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The last workout before leaving for spring break couldn't have received higher praise.

Ohio State didn't get quite as warm of a welcome from Urban Meyer after returning from a week away from the practice field.

Meyer understood why his team might have looked a little sluggish at times on Tuesday afternoon at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, and he even shouldered some of the blame for the way the schedule worked out ahead of the first full-contact practice of camp. But he doesn't figure to be as accommodating if a few miscues aren't addressed in meetings and cleaned up when the pads come on again.

"I told them, I helped them with the excuses," Meyer said. "We just got back from spring break, first day in pads -- we have to deal with excuses tomorrow.

"It just didn’t feel like a top-five practice. We’ve just got to get back and have one Thursday. The Thursday before we left was maybe the best practice we’ve had since we’ve been here."

That doesn't mean the Buckeyes didn't have some encouraging individual performances or some interesting schematic develops to evaluate in the return to action, starting with these four.

(Read full post)

3 Up, 3 Down: Ohio State 17, MSU 16 

September, 30, 2012
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EAST LANSING, Mich. -- A few things Ohio State will feel good about and some issues it will need to correct after opening Big Ten play with a 17-16 road win over Michigan State on Saturday.

THREE UP

1. Miller magic: After a week with a lighter workload, the ball was right back in Braxton Miller's hands and the weight was firmly on his shoulders. The sophomore quarterback can clearly still handle it, rushing for 136 yards on 23 carries and throwing for 179 more on 23 passing attempts with the game-winning touchdown toss thrown in for good measure. He was clearly sore when it was over, but Miller answered a stiff test against a hard-hitting defense.

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