Ohio State Buckeyes: Gareon Conley

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Almost as soon as it arrived, spring camp at Ohio State wrapped up. Time isn't likely to fly by quite as quickly in the offseason with the summer months sure to drag by until the 2014 campaign finally opens in August. The Buckeyes have plenty of work to do to get ready for their debut against Navy on Aug. 30, and to help pass the time, we're looking at some of the most pressing positional questions they'll have to answer to make another run at a championship.

Who will line up opposite Doran Grant?

[+] EnlargeDoran Grant
Jason Mowry/Icon SMIDoran Grant is set as a starter at one cornerback spot, but the other starting CB spot is still open.
Bradley Roby, a first-round NFL draft pick is gone, yet there hardly seemed to be any hand-wringing about filling that hole at cornerback. But with Grant sliding seamlessly into Bradley Roby's spot in the secondary after a season that occasionally featured him outperforming his higher-profile teammate, that still leaves a vacancy for new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash to fill as he installs his system to slow down the pass.

The Buckeyes didn't show much concern about plugging that spot during spring practice, either, though they left camp without a resolution as to which candidate is best suited for a starting job and an integral role in repairing what was a leaky pass defense a year ago.

One candidate is rising junior Armani Reeves, who has proven himself as a serviceable option at a minimum and showed flashes of being more than that with 26 tackles, eight passes defended, an interception and a forced fumble last season. And right there beside him is a redshirt freshman whose name was seemingly always on the lips of Urban Meyer in March and April, as Gareon Conley is pushing hard for first-team reps.

Since Meyer arrived, the Buckeyes have had perhaps more success than any team in the nation in targeting and recruiting cornerbacks, with Conley leading an influx of talent that also includes another touted redshirt freshman in Eli Apple and incoming recruits Marshon Lattimore and Damon Webb to supply even more depth in the back end. With Grant as the only cornerback on the roster with his spot solidified on the depth chart, there will be no shortage of competition when August rolls around, and the business of shoring up that pass defense becomes even more serious ahead of the opener against Navy on Aug. 30.

Leaving spring, Reeves and Conley seemed to be waging a two-man battle for a starting job, though both of them figure to be heavily involved in the nickel and dime packages regardless of how that fight to start shakes out in training camp. But the Buckeyes will eventually need to settle on one guy to partner with Grant, and for now, they're still waiting to come up with an answer.


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is always trying to find new ways to motivate his players.

Last spring, he had a banner put up in the Ohio State field house reading “The Chase …” in reference to the Buckeyes’ championship pursuits. Meyer said he thought about changing the display for the 2014 offseason. In the end, though, he stuck with the same one.

“We didn’t accomplish it,” Meyer told ESPN.com. “We chased it but didn’t catch it. So the chase is still on.”

Ohio State, of course, nearly made it to its desired finish line. After going 12-0 for the second straight season under Meyer, the Buckeyes just needed to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game to clinch a date with Florida State for the BCS national title. Instead, they fell 34-24 to the Spartans and closed the year on a two-game losing streak with a 40-35 setback against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteUrban Meyer says Ohio State is still trying to finish "The Chase."
So the chase continues, albeit with a much different-looking team in the 2014 starting gate. Gone is four-fifths of the offensive line that formed the backbone of the Big Ten’s top-scoring offense the past two seasons. Also gone are reigning Big Ten running back of the year Carlos Hyde and top receiver Corey “Philly” Brown, as well as the two biggest stars on defense -- linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby -- who opted to enter the NFL draft.

Experience is lacking in many key areas, but Meyer is ready to let some talented youngsters loose, including true freshmen. In retrospect, he wishes he had done so last year, when defensive end Joey Bosa and receiver Dontre Wilson were the only first-year players to make a big impact until safety Vonn Bell started in the Orange Bowl.

“We redshirted too many last year, and that was our fault,” he said. “There was a misunderstanding, and we just didn’t do a good job, especially on defense. When they show up on campus, we need to get them ready to play.”

This spring, early enrollees Raekwon McMillan (linebacker), Curtis Samuel (tailback) and Johnnie Dixon (receiver) were all heavily involved and have secured roles in the fall. Redshirt freshman are also at or near the top of the depth chart at strongside linebacker (Darron Lee and Chris Worley) and cornerback (Gareon Conley and Eli Apple), while true sophomores like safety Cam Burrows and tailback Ezekiel Elliott could force their way into the starting lineup.

“When you talk about inexperience, that’s a good thing right now,” said Chris Ash, who was hired from Arkansas as co-defensive coordinator to help fix Ohio State’s pass defense. “There aren’t a lot of habits that we have to change to fit what we’re trying to do. We don’t have older guys that are comfortable with where they’re at in their careers.”

An already young offense became even greener this spring because of injuries to three senior leaders: tight end Jeff Heuerman, receiver Evan Spencer and quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes will no doubt look a lot different when Miller returns from shoulder surgery. During the 15 spring practices, the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year often stood behind the offense and wore a camera on his head so coaches could go over what he was seeing on the field.

“We're exhausting every avenue and even inventing different avenues to make sure he's engaged and getting mental reps,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “We're doing the best we can with a bad situation. He has embraced it and is working his tail off, making sure he’s getting the most out of it.”

Herman says the Buckeyes should be more explosive on the perimeter this season, with guys like Wilson, Dixon, junior college transfer Corey Smith, sophomore Michael Thomas and freshman Jalin Marshall at receiver and a stable of athletic tailbacks. The safeties are longer and quicker than they have been in the past, and the defensive line -- which could be one of the nation’s best -- will have four starters who all used to be defensive ends.

The objective is clear: more speed. To that end, Meyer has hammered a new mantra in the players' heads: “4 to 6, A to B.” That means play hard for four to six seconds and get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. It's hard to interview an Ohio State player these days without hearing the phrase.

“That’s all he’s been preaching this spring.” defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “He said he’s not really worried about technique and all that stuff. It’s just about playing hard, because if you play hard, effort makes up for mistakes.”

Washington said the defense was greatly simplified this spring, with only about four or five different calls to learn. Aggressiveness trumped scheme.

“The culture of Ohio State is to go hard, not trick you,” Meyer said. “I just felt like there was too much stuff last year, instead of just going hard.”

By moving faster and playing harder, the Buckeyes hope to overcome their youth and track down what they've been hunting. They have been tantalizingly close.

“We’re still on a chase,” Washington said. “We’ve just got to finish it.”

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The entire roster wasn't on display, leaving some uncertainty about what Ohio State will look like at full strength. But heading into the offseason, there were still some lessons to be learned by the Gray's 17-7 victory over the Scarlet on Saturday at Ohio Stadium.

The secondary has improved

  • The offense was short-handed, starting with the absence of a certain two-time defending Big Ten Player of the Year at quarterback and including short or nonexistent workloads for key receivers. But the defensive backs showed the kind of improvement Urban Meyer demanded since last season's unit finished No. 110 in the country against the pass. In holding Cardale Jones to a 14-for-31 performance through the air without a touchdown, even with top returning cornerback Doran Grant on the sideline, the Buckeyes' defensive backs will head into the summer feeling good about their progress. Armani Reeves and Gareon Conley are both solid options at cornerback, with the former making a statement early in the game with a nice breakup on a deep ball down the sideline. And once Grant and injured safety Vonn Bell are back in the mix to play Ohio State's more aggressive man coverage this fall, the statistics should look drastically better.
Braxton Miller is still the key
[+] EnlargeCardale Jones
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteCardale Jones is likely to enter the fall as the backup quarterback for Ohio State.

  • Jones made progress in several areas throughout the spring, and he's earned the right to head into training camp as the second-string quarterback. But Miller remains the most critical component in Ohio State's spread attack, and his absence was a major factor in what was largely a disappointing afternoon for the offense. Miller will be back from his shoulder surgery shortly and is cleared to resume throwing and working out in time for the offseason conditioning program. It is still obvious that the Buckeyes need him on the field if they're going to make a run at a championship this fall. He'll also need some better work from the offensive line than what the Buckeyes put on display in the exhibition, though not having guard Pat Elflein in pads and limiting tackle Taylor Decker's role didn't do the unit any favors Saturday.
Michael Thomas is still a spring star

  • By now it should come as no surprise, but redshirt sophomore Michael Thomas again led the Buckeyes in receptions in the spring game, turned heads with some eye-popping grabs and looked like a future star on the perimeter. That's a familiar story with Thomas, who has dominated the spotlight during spring camp three years running and capped off the latest one with six catches for 64 yards, including a diving reception for a first down and a one-handed snag along the sideline that highlighted his athleticism and ability to haul in even balls thrown off target. The Buckeyes haven't settled on a true pecking order at receiver yet, though Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith are sure bets to take two top spots. One more time, it appears Ohio State should make room for Thomas in the rotation leaving spring, but obviously he'll need to follow it up with more standout work when practice begins again this summer.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Spring weather has just now finally arrived for Ohio State, but its camp is already about to come to a close. Ahead of Saturday's exhibition game to wrap up the 15 workouts spread through March and April, the final look at things to watch will breakd own some intriguing matchups now that the official rosters have been unveiled.

[+] EnlargeDarryl Baldwin
AP Photo/David DurochikWith a tough matchup in Ohio State's spring game, Darryl Baldwin could prove he can lockdown the starting RT job.
Scarlet QB Cardale Jones vs. Gray secondary

  • The redshirt sophomore has strengthened his case to fill the backup role at quarterback behind Braxton Miller with strong practice performances throughout camp, but he's shown some signs of nerves at times during scrimmages and could benefit from a productive outing in a live setting in front of a big crowd. Urban Meyer typically focuses his attention and play-calling on the passing attack during spring games, and with the Gray having what appears to be the full starting secondary with Tyvis Powell and Cam Burrows at safety and Doran Grant, Armani Reeves and Gareon Conley at cornerback, Jones will be tested.
Gray LB Raekwon McMillan vs. Scarlet RB Ezekiel Elliott

  • The hype is only building for the touted early enrollee on defense, and McMillan might be the most closely watched player in the Horseshoe as he's thrown into a lineup that includes two projected starters next to him at the outside linebacker spots. The true freshman has impressed the coaching staff during the 14 workouts so far, looking the part physically and embracing the culture Meyer is working so hard to reestablish. Even if finishing camp with some solid work against Ohio State's front-runner at tailback and three first-team offensive linemen doesn't help McMillan reel in senior Curtis Grant on the depth chart, it could still bode well for his chances to help provide depth in the fall -- and start building even more buzz for next season.
Scarlet RT Darryl Baldwin vs. Gray DE Noah Spence

  • Tougher spring game assignments than what Baldwin will face on Saturday are hard to come by, and really, the redshirt senior isn't likely to take on many pass rushers better than Spence when the real season arrives. So if Baldwin can hold his own against one of the fastest, most tenacious players off the edge in the Big Ten this weekend, that would go a long way toward solidifying a starting job and easing some of the uncertainty still swirling around an offensive line that must replace four starters. The Scarlet line as a whole caught a bit of a break with the first-team defensive line being split up, but Spence still has Adolphus Washington alongside him and ready to wreak the kind of havoc that stole the show in last year's edition of the spring showcase.


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer hired Chris Ash away from Arkansas primarily to fix Ohio State's problems in its pass defense.

What Ash found is that the biggest area of need might have been from the shoulder pads up rather than any scheme or philosophy.

"You talk about Ohio State and the history, and there have been some really good defenses and some really good defensive backs," the Buckeyes' first-year co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach told ESPN.com. "You knew what you were going to get when you lined up against Ohio State -- you were going to get hit in the mouth.

[+] EnlargeChris Ash
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsChris Ash says instilling a new attitude in the secondary is as important as any scheme he is bringing to Ohio State.
"From my observations, some of that confidence and swagger has been lost in the last couple of years. And that mental psyche is probably as big as anything for us to regain."

It's understandable why the secondary might have felt shell-shocked by the way last season ended. The last three games of the season saw Ohio State surrender 451 passing yards to Michigan in a one-point win, allow Michigan State's Connor Cook to register his first career 300-yard passing day in a Big Ten championship game loss and serve up five passing touchdowns to Clemson in the Orange Bowl defeat. That led to withering criticism from fans and media about the pass defense.

"It’s been everywhere about how bad our back end was," senior cornerback Doran Grant said.

Ash said he hasn't looked much at the past and doesn't really care about it. But he does want the defensive backfield to play with an attitude and confidence, a task that's not made easier by the loss of three starters from last season.

One way Ash has tried to instill those traits is by showing his players clips from the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks' secondary. Seattle's hard-hitting, long cornerbacks and safeties set a tone for its entire defense.

"We made lot of cutups of them and said, 'Guys, this is how the best in the business play the game of football,’'' Ash said. "Are we going to be that? No, but we can be in our own way, and this is the way we need to play."

Ash wants his players showing energy and excitement on the field. So whenever a defensive back gives a great effort or celebrate a big play in practice this spring, you'll hear Ohio State coaches say, "Locker it." That's jargon for saving the video clip, which Ash will later show to his players in meetings.

Ohio State needed more change than just the mental side of the game, of course. Ash will help give the Buckeyes a more consistent and aggressive approach in its pass coverage, utilizing the Cover 4, or quarters, scheme. That will also feature some man-to-man, press coverage at times. It's kind of a combination of what Ash ran at Wisconsin, mixed in with some principals that Michigan State has had so much success with.

"We're taking the same approach that we take to stopping the run and putting it in the back end," Meyer said. "The feeling around here was as long as we stop the run and give up some passing yards, that’s OK. That’s not the case anymore. There are too many good throwing teams out there."

Grant is by far the most experienced player in the secondary and looks to take over the role of No. 1 cornerback after Bradley Roby's departure to the NFL. Working opposite him are junior Armani Reeves and redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple. The latter two were both big-time recruits, and Ash said Apple is probably the defense's most improved player over the latter half of spring ball.

Sophomore Vonn Bell, who made his first career start at safety in the Orange Bowl, tore his MCL early in spring practice. In his absence, the 6-foot-3 Tyvis Powell and the 6-foot Cam Burrows are taking first-team reps at safety. Both are former cornerbacks and are what Ash calls "the model of what we want to recruit here" at safety because of their speed and size.

They've got a long way to go to match the Seahawks, but the Buckeyes have very promising, if somewhat raw, athletes to work with. They hope that leads to a much better and more confident secondary this season.

"It’s not about the size or anything like that," Grant said. "It’s about going hard and being coachable. [The Seahawks are] a high standard, but Ohio State, we’re also a high standard."
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Spring weather has just now finally arrived for Ohio State, but its camp is already about to come to a close. Ahead of Saturday's exhibition game to wrap up the 15 workouts spread through March and April, we're taking a look at players who have helped themselves and could put on a show over the weekend, switching over today to defense.

[+] EnlargeAdolphus Washington
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMoving inside will help both Adolphus Washington and the Buckeyes' defensive line.
LB Darron Lee

  • The sophomore might not have been one of the popular pre-spring picks to claim the third starting job at linebacker and help fill the void left by Ryan Shazier's early entry to the NFL draft, but Lee impressed the coaching staff enough during offseason workouts to earn the first crack at it when camp opened -- and he's done nothing since then to lose the spot. The Buckeyes have tweaked the lineup a bit with Joshua Perry moving over to weak-side linebacker in place of Shazier with Lee taking over on the strong side, and with Curtis Grant in the middle, that unit has shown some signs of getting Ohio State closer to the level it has come to expect on defense. Lee's versatile athleticism as a former high school quarterback and defensive back has blended well with the added strength he's put on at 225 pounds, and the Buckeyes have had little reason to explore other starting options heading into the spring game.
CB Gareon Conley

  • One of the more touted prospects at the position a year ago, coach Urban Meyer hasn't been shy about expressing some disappointment that Conley wasn't ready to contribute last season and ultimately redshirted. But his skills in coverage are starting to show up more regularly now, and he's pushing Armani Reeves hard for the second starting job opposite Doran Grant in Ohio State's more aggressive man-to-man defense. Even if Conley doesn't claim that gig, the Buckeyes are still likely going to have him heavily involved in the nickel and dime packages, and the rigors of playing more bump-and-run in the secondary will make having reliable, talented depth like he figures to provide invaluable. Assuming the offense again tries to stress the passing game in the closing scrimmage, Conley should have numerous chances to show his stuff on Saturday.
DT Adolphus Washington

  • Now a junior with some proven ability when it counts on his resume, Washington isn't exactly emerging out of nowhere. He's also previously had a breakout spring that ended with a prolific performance in the exhibition game that seemingly announced his arrival as a future star. But injuries and what appeared to be uncertainty about the best way to use Washington kept him from truly becoming the havoc-wreaking force the Buckeyes expected last season, and in some respects that made the 6-foot-4, 288-pounder a bit of an afterthought heading into camp. His move to defensive tackle, though, has provided the stability perhaps needed to allow him to flourish -- and when healthy, there's never been a need to question his physical tools. With Noah Spence and Joey Bosa on the edge and Michael Bennett returning on the inside, a rejuvenated Washington could be the piece that gives Ohio State one of the most relentless pass rushes in the nation.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The cushions are gone in the Ohio State secondary.

For the spring, that figuratively applies to a group of defensive backs being challenged and pushed to the limit on a daily basis, removing their personal comfort zone in order to to improve on the disaster that was last season’s pass coverage.

By the fall, it will literally mean the spaces that used to be open to opposing wide receivers at the line of scrimmage will no longer exist, replaced instead by a relentless barrage of nonstop press coverage.

The goal both now and later is for the Buckeyes to make an opponent uncomfortable when the ball is in the air, and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs is more than willing to do his part to take out the buffer and dial up the pressure to make sure that happens.

“We’re playing a style of defense that is very appealing to me as a corners coach,” Coombs said. “Every single snap of spring football we have lined up in press coverage, and that’s the way we’re going to learn it. Then we’ll find out how we stack up when the fall comes around.”

[+] EnlargeArmani Reeves
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsArmani Reeves and the Buckeyes will be in press coverage more often in 2014.
The Buckeyes came up woefully short on the measuring stick last fall, and its beleaguered pass coverage was arguably at the top of the list of reasons they fell short of their goal of playing for the national championship as the secondary unraveled down the stretch.

Ohio State survived a shootout against rival Michigan despite allowing 451 passing yards, but even its high-powered offense wasn’t able to keep trading punches against Michigan State and Clemson as those teams combined for 682 yards and eight touchdowns through the air in those two losses. Collectively the Buckeyes allowed 250 yards or more eight times as they sank to No. 110 in the nation in pass defense, and coach Urban Meyer has made it well known that he believed the defense was too conservative.

That message has clearly been delivered to returning assistants such as Coombs, and a fresh voice in co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash has echoed it as he helps install a much more aggressive system that will bring the cornerbacks up to the line of scrimmage to force the issue in man-to-man coverage.

“It takes practice to play that way,” Coombs said. “Football is made up of a myriad of different schemes. There are lots of different things, and it’s not like you can just say, ‘Hey, go put those guys up on the line of scrimmage and go play.’ It’s the scheme; it’s how everything fits together.

“I’m not blaming that on anybody, but that was not what we were doing. We did it at times, but it wasn’t our base concept -- it was an adjustment. Now it is our base alignment, and we will adjust off of that. So, in order to do that, you’ve got to do it.”

That alone doesn’t guarantee improvement, and the Buckeyes are certainly aware that it will take more than tweaking the playbook to get results.

For starters, three veterans from the secondary must be replaced, including cornerback Bradley Roby, after he elected to skip his final season of eligibility and enter the NFL draft. The Buckeyes do still have senior Doran Grant around to fill that void at the boundary position in the secondary, and he has all the tools to become a shutdown defender, the role Roby filled during the last couple seasons.

The new scheme also presents some personnel challenges, as the demanding nature of press coverage will force the Buckeyes to rotate cornerbacks more frequently to keep them fresh. That will make it imperative to bring along an inexperienced, but talented, group of players, including former elite recruits such as Gareon Conley and Eli Apple to supplement Grant and projected starter Armani Reeves without much drop-off in production or effort.

But there is still time left in spring practice to work on that, plus an entire offseason this summer and training camp in August until the Buckeyes feel comfortable dealing with the pressure.

Then it will be their turn to put it on somebody else.

“I actually like it,” Grant said. “Our whole team is liking it. We’re buying into it and we appreciate this defense. We’re going to work our butts off to get [it right].”

After all, the Buckeyes know they can’t get it fixed sitting on cushions, either.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive backs.

Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.

Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.

Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.

Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.

Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.

Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.

Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.

Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.

Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.

Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.

Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.

Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.

Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.
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Ohio State spring predictions: No. 1

February, 28, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Preparations to end a two-game losing streak have already started for Ohio State, but the chance to make them with the pads on again after a two-month wait isn't over yet.

There's less than a week left on that wait for spring practice, and given the disappointing end to the 2013 season and the rigorous offseason conditioning program the Buckeyes have been going through, that time surely can't fly by quickly enough for the players. We've already looked at players facing critical springs and key position battles, and to count down these final few days before camp opens, we'll make a handful of predictions for what should happen in March and April as Ohio State reloads for another run at a title in the fall.

[+] EnlargeTyvis Powell
Jason Mowry/Icon SMITyvis Powell played well for the Buckeyes in 2013, but he will have a bigger role next season.
No. 1: The secondary earns rave reviews

No unit will be under closer inspection this spring than the secondary with a new coach, three new starters and huge task in front of it after the Buckeyes struggled so mightily to stop the pass last season.

But all those fresh faces and all that room to grow also allows for the defensive backs to make the biggest impression in the spring, and the Buckeyes are in position to turn a few heads and get back to the level the program is accustomed to defensively by the fall.

With Bradley Roby off to the NFL a year early, Christian Bryant's appeals for a medical redshirt denied and C.J. Barnett out of eligibility, there are critical holes to fill. Few teams in the nation, though, can match the talent the Buckeyes have acquired in the secondary in the last couple recruiting cycles, and all that work is poised to pay off as the youngsters move into the starting lineup.

Tyvis Powell already did that as a redshirt freshman last fall, and he proved he can be counted on after spending his first season as a regular playing in nickel and dime packages before starting at safety in the Discover Orange Bowl. He was joined on the back line in that game by heralded recruit Vonn Bell, who flashed the athleticism that made him one of the nation's most sought-after recruits last year with a leaping, one-handed interception that restarted the hype for his sophomore campaign.

At cornerback, Doran Grant played better and more reliably than perhaps he received credit for, and there will be a spirited battle to land the job on the other side of the formation during camp. Armani Reeves might have the inside track when practice opens given his experience, but Gareon Conley and Eli Apple will be legitimate threats after watching from the sideline during their first seasons on campus.

And all of those guys will be getting watched by a fresh set of eyes with new secondary coach and co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash taking over and implementing his more aggressive approach to shutting down passing attacks. He might be getting monitored just as closely as the players as Urban Meyer takes a more hands-on approach to getting his defense fixed and ready to contend for at least a Big Ten title.

That job probably won't be done by the time the spring game rolls around in April. But it seems like a safe bet the Buckeyes will be able to see plenty of progress by then, regardless of how much further they might still have to go.

Top spring position battles: No. 1

February, 21, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Nobody is walking into a stress-free environment when Ohio State returns to the practice field this spring as long as national-title aspirations hang in the air and Urban Meyer prowls the sideline.

But the pressure isn't the same for all the Buckeyes since a healthy handful have their names etched at the top of the depth chart and won't be sweating a competition for a starting job -- obviously beginning with a quarterback who has finished in the top 10 in Heisman Trophy voting two years running. But determining the backup to Braxton Miller is just one of the intriguing positional battles that will be waged in March and April, and after already tackling that topic and three others, the countdown concludes with what figures to be the hottest, most critical competition in camp.

[+] EnlargeArmani Reeves
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsArmani Reeves had 26 tackles and an interception as a sophomore in 2013.
No. 1: Cornerback

  • Predecessor: Bradley Roby (69 tackles, 16 passes defended, three interceptions, two blocked kicks, two touchdowns; declared early for the NFL draft)
  • Candidates: Junior Armani Reeves, redshirt freshmen Eli Apple and Gareon Conley
  • Why to watch: The weakness of the Ohio State defense last season was obviously no secret, and removing the supremely talented Roby from the equation in pass coverage only adds to the degree of difficulty in trying to fix it for co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash. Thanks to a recruiting haul in the secondary during the last two seasons that might be the best in the nation, though, the new assistant coach is inheriting a roster with enough skill and athleticism to make those improvements and turn the Buckeyes back into an aggressive, lockdown defense. Doran Grant didn't receive nearly as much acclaim for his work in coverage last year as Roby, but he left little room to doubt that he's capable of taking over as the top dog at cornerback, leaving at least three guys to fight for the other spot. The battle is only going to become more heated when Damon Webb and Marshon Lattimore arrive on campus in the fall, but the Buckeyes definitely won't be short on options during the spring.
  • Pre-camp edge: Grant parlayed some action off the bench two years ago into a springboard to a starting job last spring, and Reeves appears to be in line for the same type of jump after being pressed into a fair amount of action as a sophomore. Reeves finished the season with 26 tackles, eight passes defended, an interception and a forced fumble, and while he didn't quite seem ready for a full-time role yet, he has had a taste of success and what it takes to succeed at this level, which should give him an early advantage over Apple and Conley. Both of those young guys, though, were highly coveted recruits a year ago for a reason, and their athleticism could help them close the gap and make a legitimate push for a starting spot as the Buckeyes try to address their biggest defensive shortcoming from 2013.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The next wave of talent is coming, set to unleash all the hype and speculation about which signees are going to instantly transform Ohio State before the signatures are even dry on the letters of intent.

Few programs or coaches have had as much success landing blue-chip athletes as the Buckeyes and Urban Meyer, and while attracting the most coveted recruits in the nation helps make for big parties on national signing day, it's worth remembering that few of those players are going to make a significant splash during the first year on campus.

Even last year's heralded group of signees, despite joining a roster with noticeable deficiencies at some key positions, wasn't quite able to contribute nearly as much right away as might have been expected when the Class of 2013 was finally signed, sealed and ultimately delivered.

Maybe this year's class will be different for the Buckeyes. But that answer won't be known for months, so before the faxes arrive and that speculation begins, let's take a look back at the true freshmen who did leave a mark for Ohio State last season, in order of their on-field impact.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDE Joey Bosa might have been overlooked heading into the season, but by the end of it there was no denying how big of an impact he had.
1. DE Joey Bosa

  • By the numbers: 44 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and a fumble recovery
  • Recruiting ranking: Four stars, No. 7 defensive tackle
  • Freshman impact: There was never any question about Bosa's athleticism, but heading into training camp, he was rarely mentioned as a potential game-changer right away for the Buckeyes on defense. But after initially being overlooked by flashier players at skill positions, Bosa blossomed into one of the most terrifying young pass rushers in the country, quickly moving into Ohio State's starting lineup and ensuring that the spotlight won't miss him again moving forward.
2. RB/WR Dontre Wilson

  • By the numbers: 31 carries for 250 yards and a touchdown; 22 receptions for 210 yards and 2 touchdowns
  • Recruiting ranking: Four stars, No. 5 athlete
  • Freshman impact: Wilson certainly did some damage with the football in his hands, and his speed lived up to its advance billing when he was able to find some open field. But he might have been at his most dangerous merely serving as a decoy late in the season, as opposing defenses stayed on high alert any time Wilson was on the field, opening up play-action passes deep down the field or huge running lanes between the tackles that the Buckeyes were more than willing to exploit. Moving forward, Wilson is set to see far more touches in the hybrid role Meyer envisions.
3. P Cameron Johnston

  • By the numbers: 49 punts for an average of 44 yards per attempt, 31 downed inside the 20-yard line
  • Recruiting ranking: None
  • Freshman impact: One of the most valued contributors of the 2013 class didn't even join it on signing day a year ago, with the Buckeyes working overtime to find a punter. They also had to expand their search to another continent. But by summer, they had their man in Johnston, and the Australian exploded on the scene thanks to his powerful leg, incredible hang time and a knack for pinning opponents deep in their own territory. That a punter would qualify as one of the top contributors right away would have been a major surprise at this time a year ago, but it also speaks to the amount of talent the Buckeyes held in reserve with redshirts -- starting with guys like linebacker Mike Mitchell, wide receiver Jalin Marshall and cornerbacks Eli Apple and Gareon Conley.

OSU offseason to-do list: Defense

January, 9, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Another 12-win season is in the books, though the second one under Urban Meyer did come with a pair of losses at the end that took a bit of the shine for Ohio State.

As the Buckeyes turn the page to Year 3 under Meyer, they'll certainly be looking to top that victory total, clinch a spot in the first edition of the playoffs and again compete for a national title. To do so, all three phases will have issues to address, and the checklist today tackles the defense.

Chart a course: Meyer promised an all-inclusive look at what plagued his defense at the end of the season, and first tweaks were already made when he switched out some personnel in the secondary to try to find an answer for both the Discover Orange Bowl and the future. But it will be the next two areas that figure to be more critical moving forward, and they'll likely go hand in hand as Ohio State tries to establish a schematic identity and looks to hire somebody to replace former co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers. The Buckeyes didn't have much depth to speak of and injuries perhaps limited what they could do at times, but often they looked torn between playing conservatively against the pass and dialing up pressure with blitzes and bump-and-run coverage.

[+] EnlargeBradley Roby
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesBradley Roby is one of three starters Ohio State will need to replace in its secondary in 2014.
Meyer has made his preference quite well known, and how he handles the vacancy on his staff and how much responsibility that new hire is given could go a long way in ensuring that he gets what he wants.

Reload in the secondary: There might not be a program in the country which can match the roll Ohio State has been on while stockpiling talent in the defensive backfield. But it can't afford to wait any longer for those young guys to contribute as it tries to replace three starters in the secondary, including star cornerback Bradley Roby. There is one holdover in Doran Grant, and Tyvis Powell might qualify as another even though he's headed to a higher-profile gig at safety after spending nearly all of the season at nickelback. Vonn Bell showed what he can bring to the table in the Orange Bowl, and he'll be counted on heavily to live up to his immense potential as a likely starter along with Powell. That would leave what figures to be a heated competition for the other cornerback job, and while Armani Reeves has experience, former elite recruits like Eli Apple and Gareon Conley are going to push him hard.

Replace Shazier: A year ago Ryan Shazier was the only returner in the front seven. Now, his spot is the only one in the starting lineup that needs to be filled. Of those two scenarios, the Buckeyes would almost certainly prefer the latter, though Shazier's production is going to be incredibly difficult to match, as he moves on to the NFL with a year of eligibility left on the table. The lack of depth and experience was more glaring at linebacker than anywhere else for the Buckeyes last season, and in that regard, even losing one starter can present a significant challenge. But Trey Johnson and Mike Mitchell were both meaningful additions in the 2013 class and should be ready for larger roles, Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry can provide stability after solid seasons in the starting lineup and top-shelf commit Raekwon McMillan may be the rare breed of linebacker who can make an impact early. The Buckeyes may still not have an many options on hand at the position as they're used to, but the cupboard is beginning to be restocked.

Previous to-do list: Offense

Glover-Williams ready to grab the flag 

September, 4, 2013
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Eric Glover-WilliamsBrad Bournival/ESPNClass of 2015 commit Eric Glover-Williams is ready to be a leader for Ohio State.


CANTON, Ohio -- Urban Meyer found his Superman.

He's that one person college coaches can look to lead the team. He's someone who exemplifies what their university is about and someone who can pull in players from around the country to make up a dynamic recruiting class.

For Ohio State in 2015, Meyer has chosen Eric Glover-Williams (Canton, Ohio/McKinley), and it isn’t by accident.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The arrangement is temporary in the starting lineup, and there’s not much guaranteed even after the first snap.

Armani Reeves will take what he can get and make the most of it, though, even if the circumstances that will lead to the sophomore’s first start when the season opens next week aren’t exactly ideal.

Reeves is certainly aware of how short his stay with the first unit in place of Ohio State’s star junior Bradley Roby might be following the announcement of a one-game suspension tied to Roby's arrest for an incident at a bar last month. But the Buckeyes didn’t waste much time elevating Reeves on the depth chart, either, at least offering a suggestion that he might be leading a talented pack of defensive backs pushing the established starters for playing time.

[+] EnlargeArmani Reeves
AP Photo/Al BehrmanSophomore Armani Reeves intends to make the most of his chance to start while Bradley Roby is suspended.
“Obviously, [Roby] is one of the best in the country, if not the best,” Reeves said after practice Monday. “When he comes back, I’m still going to do the same thing I’ve been doing the whole time, and that’s just working hard. If I’m on the field at corner, I’m going to go hard. And if I’m not, I’m going to go hard on special teams.

“It doesn’t matter if he’s on the field or not, I’m just going to do my job and help this team any way I can.”

Roby officially won’t be out there for the opener against Buffalo despite the possibility that a charge which has already been reduced from battery to disorderly conduct could be dismissed entirely. And after the Buckeyes settled on that punishment on Saturday, it only took two days before cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs announced a replacement for him, tabbing Reeves for the honor instead of continuing to let a heated battle for practice reps continue.

Reeves might have inherited a spot in the starting group due to something well out of his control, but he certainly hasn’t been just handed playing time thanks to the deep, talented pool of options Ohio State has on hand in the secondary.

Arguably the most skilled signing class of cornerbacks in the country is on campus with Gareon Conley, Eli Apple and Cam Burrows, and all of them have made an impression with their athleticism and vied for action right away.

Doran Grant has done enough to hang on to the starting job he claimed coming out of spring practice, and he’ll likely be handling Roby’s normal responsibilities at the boundary cornerback spot while he’s gone. But Reeves has had to earn the opportunity he’s going to get against Buffalo, both by breathing down the neck of Grant at times and in separating himself from the highly touted freshmen.

“Incredible offseason, great spring, worked really hard, understands the game, very committed, very focused -- but still has to play,” Coombs said. “Still has to play, so we’ll find out on the 31st, but he’s going to line up and he’s going to play.

“I’m excited to see him play, to be honest with you.”

That audition could be particularly valuable down the road, as Grant might attest after shining in place of Roby when given the chance a year ago when a shoulder injury forced Ohio State’s shutdown defender to miss a game.

Roby came right back to reclaim his spot last season, and he surely will again when his suspension ends. But however briefly a starting role might belong to Reeves, that doesn’t diminish the importance of a chance to showcase his ability.

“This is my first game start, and who wouldn’t be nervous, really?” Reeves said. “But first play, first hit, I’ll be cool. Just have to go play, it’s a great experience and I can’t wait for it.

“I prepared the whole offseason for this -- spring ball, summer workouts -- all for this moment. I just have to take the opportunity and just go with it.”

When it’s over, Reeves just might have to go back to the second unit. But the next wave of cornerbacks appears to be coming, and he can send the warning signal.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Observations and notes from a brief glimpse at the Ohio State freshmen during a split-squad practice that opened training camp on Sunday morning:

Meyer locked in

The Buckeyes coach made clear he was ready to turn the page from all the offseason chatter and get back to focusing on football, and he obviously enjoyed being on the field and working with his players.

Urban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteUrban Meyer was energetic in working with the Ohio State newcomers in the first practice of training camp.
From the start, Meyer was energetic and engaged frequently with the young players he was finally getting to coach for the first time. And if for some reason the newcomers weren't aware of the high expectations and the standards for a program that will enter the season ranked second in the nation, Meyer called a pair of huddles in the first 20 minutes of the workout to impress upon them what he's looking for and expects in the buildup to the opener on Aug. 31 against Buffalo.

The message was hard to ignore, and Meyer certainly had been impatiently waiting to deliver it.

Speed it up

The periods open for media viewing didn't provide much of a look at the talented freshmen actually playing football, and because they were limited to just helmets and no pads as well, there's only so much that could be gleaned from their first morning on the practice fields at Ohio State.

But when they had a chance to dial it up and stretch their legs, the emphasis on acquiring more speed on signing day in February does appear to have paid off for the Buckeyes. Dontre Wilson seems to glide around and makes everything look smooth, and touted newcomers such as Vonn Bell, James Clark, Corey Smith and Gareon Conley all looked the part of burners capable of providing that upgrade Meyer and his staff were looking for on the recruiting trail.

They all still need to put pads on and compete against the veterans to show what they can truly do, but lack of speed shouldn't be an issue.

Special deliveries

Running backs coach Stan Drayton repeated himself over and over to drive home the point. Anybody looking to make an impact right away had better be ready to lend a hand in the kicking game.

"Fastest way you get on the field," Drayton said. "Special teams."

The Buckeyes give those units top priority and treat it as a responsibility earned instead of scraps for players not contributing on offense and defense. Drayton stressed that numerous times for anybody within earshot as the youngsters started practice. Ohio State appears to have already tabbed three guys as potential options to help out by getting their hands on the football, with Wilson, Clark and Jalin Marshall all taking turns simulating punt returns.

Missing in action

Donovan Munger wasn't on the field Sunday morning, and he might not be for a few more weeks as he apparently deals with an academic issue before he can report to the team. The Buckeyes still expect the 6-foot-3, 290-pound defensive lineman to be part of the squad this season and he was listed on the latest roster, but he'll likely have some ground to make up and will be missing valuable reps that could have potentially helped him push for a spot in the rotation.

New punter Cameron Johnston also didn't practice with the morning bunch, with Ohio State instead opting to have him work with the veterans in the afternoon. The Australian is expected to slide into the starting spot right away after his signing this summer, and working later would give him a opportunity to build a rapport with the returning long-snappers.

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