Ohio State Buckeyes: Kerry Coombs

Top Big Ten recruiters 

June, 9, 2014
Want to dominate on the recruiting trail in Big Ten territory? You better be long in experience because the conference’s best have lengthy track records that often stretch for more than a decade. These rankings are dominated by three Ohio State assistants, which might explain why the Buckeyes always manage to reel in plenty of ESPN 300 prospects.

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.

True tests coming for OSU pass defense

November, 15, 2013
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A visit to the defensive meeting room by the head man at Ohio State typically isn’t a friendly encounter.

The Buckeyes had one coming their way last month after a couple shaky outings.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Sandra Dukes/USA TODAY SportsUrban Meyer has seen his pass defense improve in the past two weeks.
Wisconsin had picked apart the secondary. At times, the following week, Northwestern was able to do whatever it wanted with the football. And even after a bye week, Iowa controlled the line and exploited the coverage with easy completions to its tight ends.

That was enough to bring coach Urban Meyer in for the second time (in as many seasons) to personally deliver a message to the defense that it wasn’t living up to his expectations, particularly when opponents put the ball in the air.

Based on the response since then, Meyer’s well-timed, fired-up challenge to the side of the ball he’s not heavily involved with appears to have accomplished exactly what it was intended to do for No. 3 Ohio State.

“Coach Meyer [was] just telling us that our passing defense is not where it’s supposed to be,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “We’re supposed to be one of the top defenses in the nation, and we weren’t playing like it. We got down to it -- all those coaches came to talk to us and told us we’re not playing to the level we need to be playing.

“We all had to step up. We all came to Ohio State to be the best and we weren’t playing like it.”

A secondary that was widely expected to live up to the best-in-the-nation standard was certainly under the most scrutiny, but the mandate for improvement touched on all levels of the Ohio State defense.

The pass rush wasn’t supplying enough pressure, forcing the cornerbacks and safeties to hold up longer while opposing receivers were given plenty of time to allow routes to develop. The linebackers were guilty of blowing a few assignments in coverage and weren’t getting to the quarterback often enough when the Buckeyes dialed up blitzes.

There was a ready-made excuse for struggles in the backend, as senior safety Christian Bryant lost for the season with a fractured ankle. However, there had been previous concerns about communication in the secondary that yielded explosive plays even star cornerback Bradley Roby had been a part of giving up early in the season.

But over the past two games, the Buckeyes have surrendered a combined 326 yards through the air and intercepted three passes. That moved them up 33 spots in the national rankings in passing yardage allowed to a tie at No. 47. It balanced out an already stout rush defense in the process.

Big tests for the pass defense will arrive on Saturday at Illinois and next week at home against Indiana, two teams with the most prolific aerial attacks in the Big Ten. But the Buckeyes have been preparing for games like that for nearly a month now.

“For us, we found ourselves in a situation where it was obvious -- we’ve got to get better at this,” cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said. “It was a huge area of emphasis on the part of everybody, and I think you change a little bit of your practice habits, change a little bit of your scheme, change a little bit about how you do your business and you get better.

“The staff and the commitment to that over the last three or four weeks has been consistent, and I think we’re going to continue to improve that. ... Over the last couple weeks, it has been dramatic. I think our kids have taken that personally, and they should.”

If the Buckeyes don’t take it to heart, they’re liable to get another visit from the head of the program, and they aren’t likely to enjoy it.

Planning for success: Ohio State

November, 14, 2013
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A strong leg is only a start.

Cameron Johnston's ability to launch the football down the field or place it in a precise location is invaluable, and Ohio State's late recruiting strike to even find him in Australia has been critical given the pressing need it had at punter.

But getting off a booming punt is merely the beginning of a successful play on special teams for the Buckeyes. And while Johnston, a freshman, has earned the attention he has received as a Ray Guy Award semifinalist, it's the collective work of the coverage unit around him which has made Ohio State so dangerous in the third phase as it executes its plan every week to win the battle for field position.

[+] EnlargeSmith
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesReceiver Devin Smith is also a big part of the Buckeyes' punt coverage team.
"That is much more a function of Devin Smith," special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs said. "It's the way they run down the field and cover and eliminate returns and kill the ball inside the 5-yard line and all that stuff. Not that Cam hasn’t had a good year, he has -- Cam has had a great year.

"But that punt team, that group of guys and the way they cover and the way they get down the field to eliminate the opportunity for the other team to return the ball is special. We are all the beneficiaries of that."

The Buckeyes, like any other team, would obviously prefer never to call on that unit in the first place. And for the most part, their high-powered offense has lightened the load for Johnston and the guys flying down the field since the Buckeyes have only punted 26 times.

But when Ohio State does get stopped and has to flip the field position around, its been among the most effective teams in the country at maximizing the yardage Johnston provides with his right foot. Through nine games, Johnston has averaged 40.9 yards per attempt, and thanks to Smith and his buddies, the Buckeyes are netting an even 40 yards on those punts while allowing a grand total of 3 return yards.

"When you watch Devin Smith, I’m telling you, put the clips of the film on," Coombs said. "You’re talking about your starting wide receiver getting down the field to cover a punt and keeping the other guy [trapped], making him fair catch again and again and again.

"It’s extraordinary."

Johnston has been no slouch either, and he's certainly holding up his end of the bargain by generating enough hang-time to let Smith and the gunners beat double teams on the perimeter or by putting backspin on his kicks to allow them to down the ball in the red zone.

Few teams in the country have been better in those two areas than the Buckeyes, who have forced 15 fair catches and pinned opponents inside the 10-yard line on 27 percent of their punts. And there is plenty of credit to go around.

"Special teams, we're much better this year," coach Urban Meyer said. "If you look at our punt team, our punt team has had the same players on it every week. Last year, we didn't know the guys. Guys were getting hurt, guys weren't good enough.

"We're just performing at a much higher level."

From start to finish.
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.

Q&A: Ohio State's Tyvis Powell

September, 6, 2013
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Tyvis Powell doesn't have to look hard for an example of a guy who has thrived under similar circumstances.

Last season, in fact, his big brother on the team had already walked the path of redshirting as a freshman defensive back and then made his way into the starting lineup in his first game on the active Ohio State roster.

[+] EnlargeTyvis Powell
Jason Mowry/Icon SMIThe play of the safeties has been a recent problem for the Buckeyes, so Tyvis Powell will move over from cornerback to safety to help shore up that area.
Certainly there are some differences in the skill sets of Powell, a tall nickelback, and Bradley Roby, a physical freak who ranks among the best cornerbacks in the nation. But the last player to sit out a year and then become an instant starter like Powell on Saturday against Buffalo was Roby in 2011. That kind of company can bode well for a player who debuted with five tackles and has room to grow.

There were a few people surprised to see you out there starting on the first day of spring practice. Were you expecting to be thrown into the lineup coming off a redshirt year?

Tyvis Powell: Honestly I wasn’t, I’m not going to lie to you. But in January, coach [Urban] Meyer handed out self-evaluation forms to everybody, and after reading some of the questions that were on it, basically what are you doing to help the team and rating yourself, when I rated myself honestly, I felt like I wasn’t really doing anything to help the team. I felt like I was just here, and I didn’t want to be like that. When I recap my life later on, I don’t want to say I was just here. I want to do something to basically make a statement, make a name for myself. What I did was take the winter offseason and just basically work hard, get extra reps, make sure I constantly drilled and got with the older people who were still here, asked them questions about the game. They all helped me out, and then when it came to spring, the strength coaches were telling them, ‘Yeah, Tyvis is coming along.’ I went to meet with [defensive coordinator Luke] Fickell, and he said they wanted to see me at the Star position [in nickel]. So I just went out there Day 1 and tried it, and I’m still here.

You get the evaluation in January, but obviously you’d been feeling some of this stuff while sitting out the year. Was it a frustrating experience to be on the shelf? How did you handle it?

TP: I’m not going to lie to you, at first it was difficult for me to really handle it. Coming out of high school, I was known as a top player. Then to get here and you’re not really doing anything to contribute to the team, it really broke my heart, honestly. Back in the day, I used to write these blogs for the fans and tell them how I wanted to work hard for them, and I kind of felt like I was letting the fans down. When they told me I was redshirting, at first I was depressed about it. Now when I look back on it, I don’t think I was ready to play last year. [Former Ohio State safety] Orhian [Johnson] asked me, ‘Do you really think you’re ready to play?’ I thought about it, and it was like, no, I don’t think I am. Then I talked to Roby, he was my big brother, and he told me every day, you’ve only got one chance to live this life, you should make the best out of every opportunity you get. What I would do is, I was on scout team, so I approached it like, ‘OK, this is my chance.’ I was going against the starters every day, Devin Smith and Philly Brown, and I’m trying to work on my technique and those guys really helped me out. They would point out that I should watch their hips or tell me to pay attention to certain things, help me out to make me a better player. And then, obviously, [cornerbacks coach Kerry] Coombs was staying on me every day. By the end of the year, I started making plays on scout team and the offensive coaches were referencing me to Coach Coombs and telling him I was out there making plays.

Coombs has made it well known how hard he was on you last year. What is your relationship with him like, and was there any adjustment period with that aggressive style?

TP: Not really, because I would say my high school coach, Sean Williams [at Bedford High School in Ohio] used to talk to me just like that. He was on me, anything I did wrong he’d let me know. He’d tell me, ‘Tyvis, this is how they’re going to talk to you on the next level.’ He basically prepared me for it, so when Coach Coombs did it, I kind of liked it. I need that energy. I’d rather him get on me and try to correct me like that than not say anything at all, that would be like giving up on me. That energy, I appreciate it now, I think it made me better. I got it, the way he talked to me, he brought this inner me out of me, got me mad and [I] started making plays better.

After all that happened in the last year, you get on the field on Saturday as a starter in the win over Buffalo. Take me through the emotions out there.

TP: Oh man, first I had to get up and thank God about it. Basically, for the first time playing in the Shoe and knowing you’re going to play, I couldn’t sleep that night. I was in the hotel tossing and turning. I only caught a little bit of sleep, but when it was game time, I was hype, ready to go. Once the ball is kicked off, and you’re with your friends, it’s just fun. At first it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s fast, it’s unbelievable out here.’ But as the game went on, I kind of realized to myself it was the same game I’ve been playing since I was 9 years old -- just a little bit faster. I was able to adjust and be able to make some plays.

Were you happy with the debut and how you played?

TP: I mean, I wouldn’t say I’m satisfied. I’m never satisfied. [I'm] very hard on myself and trying to figure out what things I can do better. So, for my first game in the Shoe, I would say I did decent. I made a couple errors, and they weren’t big, but I’d rather eliminate all errors and play a perfect game. But stuff happens, and I’ve got to get better every week.

Returning Roby gives OSU new look

September, 5, 2013
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The man-to-man plan wasn’t scrapped just because the top cover guy was missing.

Reflecting on the assignments and the play-calling, the players that were available to cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs were in one-on-one matchups over half the time in Ohio State’s first game of the season.

[+] EnlargeBradley Roby
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarOhio State cornerback Bradley Roby, who was suspended for the Buckeyes' season opener, led the nation in passes defended in 2012.
The ability to dial up pressure and attack the quarterback wasn’t entirely compromised, either, with Coombs quick to defend the Buckeyes as more aggressive than perhaps they appeared last weekend.

But while Ohio State has consistently stressed its next-guy-up approach and insisted its schemes don’t center around one player and his respective talents, taking arguably the best cornerback in the country out of the equation due to Bradley Roby’s suspension definitely seemed to force a little tweaking in the secondary.

“I think we were probably a little more aggressive than people think,” Coombs said. “At the same time, we weren’t all up in their face and pressing all day and trying to make sure we had enough energy to play four quarters of a football game in that heat without a whole lot of depth.”

The Buckeyes were also short a body at safety with senior C.J. Barnett a late scratch due to an ankle injury, and the absence of two starters with so much experience could understandably limit the playbook.

But it’s Roby’s ability to lockdown half of the field that truly frees up the Buckeyes to pin back their ears up front and dial up blitzes without the fear of getting beat in man coverage down the field. And while he was serving his punishment from coach Urban Meyer for an off-the-field incident at a bar in July, the shorthanded Buckeyes weren’t pushing the limit quite as often in the win over Buffalo as they figure to on Saturday against San Diego State.

“I think so, I think we all want to be a little more aggressive,” Meyer said. “We didn’t play as much bump-and-run coverage, however, we did pressure quite a bit.

“Roby coming back now frees up Armani [Reeves], who was a tremendous special teams player for us a year ago, and we had to be very cautious. He played a lot of football for us in that heat. That helps with our depth.”

The Buckeyes have seemingly gone out of their way to focus on the importance of simply having another cornerback in the fold again, regardless of Roby’s credentials or the fact that there surely isn’t a backup in the country who could block him from the starting lineup. Meyer drove his point home early in the week by bracketing Roby with Reeves in the latest depth chart and indicating he wouldn’t rush a decision about who would ultimately get the nod against the Aztecs, a team that threw the ball 64 times in their opener.

Having a healthy Barnett return to the field is critical as well for a unit that has planned all along to rely heavily on its veteran defensive backs to set the tone for the Buckeyes.

But Barnett wasn’t the guy who led the nation in passes defended last year, wasn’t the one selected as an ESPN.com first-team All-American and wasn’t the defensive back who was flirting with leaving early for the NFL draft last spring. That, of course, was Roby -- and having him back in pads can quickly change the entire complexion of the Ohio State defense.

“Last week, all week, he was in the office watching San Diego State film to prepare himself for this week,” Coombs said. “I think that football players at all levels, but certainly the great ones, they live to play the game. It’s been a long time since he’s been on the field.

“He’s excited about Saturday, I’m excited about Saturday, it’s time to go.”
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 -- 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.


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.


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.
Kerry Coombs coached Cincinnati Colerain to a state championship in 2004 and sent the Cardinals to four other state semifinal appearances during a 16-year career in which he compiled a 161-34 record. Coombs also coached under Brian Kelly and was part of three Cincinnati Bearcats teams that went 33-7 overall and played in two BCS bowl games.

Before starring at Ohio State and becoming a three-time Super Bowl champion, Mike Vrabel was a standout at Cuyahoga Falls (Ohio) Walsh Jesuit High School, which is just minutes from Akron.

Luke Fickell was a three-time state wrestling champion for Columbus DeSales, while Stan Drayton starred at Cleveland John Marshall in his playing days.

What does it all mean?

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A grueling practice had just ended, the pads were off and Ohio State’s defensive backs were ready to have a little fun.

So, naturally, the Buckeyes made a beeline to the weight room, at least one player not even bothering to remove the athletic tape from his hands before stepping up for his turn on what amounts to the team’s version of an arcade.

Against a wall in the spacious facility where Ohio State’s strength and conditioning program does its serious business, the players gathered around an oversized black board covered in dozens of small, square lights that combine to form a sort of Whack-a-Mole for the physically gifted. And while the Buckeyes watch each other swat at the blinking lights during a frantic minute as they compete to see who can hit the most and post the highest score on the new Dynavision machine, it doesn’t seem to register that they’re actually doing a little extra work to sharpen their eyesight and quicken their reactions.

Chris Fields, DynavisionBrad Bournival/ESPNOhio State wide receiver Chris Fields works with the Dynavision machine to improve his reaction time.
And that’s exactly the point.

“It’s kind of like a video game, so they’re into it,” strength coach Mickey Marotti said. “The object is obviously to decrease reaction time from the time they see a light sensor to the time they hit it. The theory is when you see a ball or just [improve] the awareness of what’s going on around them, they can speed that up a little bit.

“It’s good because it’s competitive, and they’re fighting back in that room to see who can get the high score. They’re charging in here all the time trying to get to it. It’s good -- that’s what we want.”

The new toy has done more than attract a crowd to the weight room after both practices and workouts, though that’s certainly one benefit for the Buckeyes. It has apparently already yielded the kind of results cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs was looking for when he suggested that Marotti look into Dynavision as he tried to find yet another way to develop his players in the secondary.

In particular, Coombs had a theory that the most pressing concern for junior Doran Grant had nothing to do with his physical ability. He had the speed and athleticism to be a shutdown cover guy, and few players on the roster could post a faster time in the 40-yard dash. As he looked at film of both practices and games from last season, Coombs hypothesized that there was simply a breakdown between what Grant saw and what he did on the field.

Not only did Dynavision provide a potential way to fix that issue, it also helped confirm it the first time Grant walked up to the board and posted one of the lowest scores among the skill-position players.

“Coach Coombs came to me and we had a talk at the end of the season about my hand-eye coordination and my reaction,” Grant said. “He got with coach [Marotti] and talked to him. They did what they had to do, brought some guys in here to try some things out, we ended up getting this [Dynavision]. We all like it. We all think it’s competition, and it’s fun.

“The first time I tried it, I liked it.”

The first run wasn’t exactly a success, though, with Grant posting a score that he remembered being a 62. Coombs says the score checked in about 14 points lower than that.

But regardless of the original number, everybody at Ohio State knows what Grant can do on the machine now. His top total of 108 is the standard now for the Buckeyes, a dramatic improvement that mirrors some of the strides he took during spring practice as he solidified a starting spot in a talented, veteran secondary.

“I could freeze the film and show [Grant], in drill work even, where this guy, this guy, this guy sees it and acts,” Coombs said. “You see it and [slowly] act. We’ve got to fix that, and that’s what we’re doing.

“What I’ve told our kids is that we train so hard, train your body physically, train your soul, frankly, with ethical conduct and character. We train your heart with toughness and all those kinds of things. Why not train your eyes and train your mind and close some of those synapses that are going on in your brain? How can that hurt us? ... They’re eating it up, and there’s no downside to kids doing that kind of stuff on their own.”

There will be no shortage of eyes on Grant in the fall watching to see if this offseason work leads to more production. But until the Buckeyes can measure their progress on the field where the lights are on the scoreboard and well out of their reach, they’ll keep slapping the ones in front of them.

“After you do it a few times and get the hang of it, you start reacting quicker,” Grant said. “I mean, that’s the purpose of it, that’s what it does -- and it works.

“It’s helping me on the field. I can see it.”

That, of course, is exactly the point.

Rising stock: Doran Grant

May, 1, 2013
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 by a handful of defenders who will be in line for heavy workloads this fall.

[+] EnlargeDoran Grant
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesDoran Grant celebrates after his interception sealed the Buckeyes' win over UAB last season.
No. 3: Doran Grant
  • Who: The flashes of ability off the bench last season made it clear that Grant, a junior, would at a minimum be sliding into a starting position when spring practice opened. But Ohio State still needed to see something more from Grant to feel truly comfortable with him on the field consistently opposite Bradley Roby at the other cornerback. Truthfully, what the coaching staff really wanted to find out was if Grant was capable of being the top cornerback on the field if, for some reason, Roby wasn't available. And while Roby's nagging shoulder injury was a factor in a lighter workload during camp, the Buckeyes also pulled him out of some situations even when he could compete, just to see how Grant would respond to the pressure of playing at the boundary position in the secondary. After passing the test out there, Grant was able to tighten his grip at the field spot heading into the summer.
  • Spring progress: Few players on the Ohio State roster can stop a watch quicker in the 40-yard dash than Grant, and with comparable size to Roby, there aren't many physical concerns about his ability to match up in coverage, either. But extensive study of practice and game tapes by cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs suggested the issue holding Grant back from becoming a regular in the rotation last season was his slow read-and-react times in coverage. The Buckeyes have designed a number of drills that all their defensive backs can do to improve that, but nobody has taken to them quite like Grant -- and the results are showing up on the field.
  • Jockeying for position: There will be no shortage of challengers for Grant's spot when the Buckeyes report back to practice in August as one of the most talented signing classes of defensive backs in the country arrives. But the competition was already pretty intense for the Buckeyes in the spring, with Armani Reeves, Tyvis Powell and early enrollees Eli Apple and Cam Burrows all in a group pushing for a role in a deep secondary. Grant has a head start thanks to his game experience and some previous success in limited chances, but maintaining that edge will require more than just showing up.
  • He said it: "Our ideal situation is all of those guys play, all of them contribute. I think that’s healthy, and that way if a guy gets dinged or a guy gets tired, you don’t feel like you can’t do this, the sky is falling. My expectation is that there’s good, healthy competition among all of those guys and those young guys coming in are going to push them for playing time." -- Coombs, on adding more depth at cornerback
  • Closing number: Grant wasn't able to get his hands on the football as spring practice wrapped up with an exhibition in Cincinnati, but he did chip in four tackles while continuing to handle Roby's role. Roby was held out to rest an injured shoulder.

Spring forward: Kicking game breakdown

February, 28, 2013
With national signing day in the books, the next big date on the Ohio State calendar as it continues working toward an encore for an undefeated season in 2013 is spring practice. Before those workouts begin, BuckeyeNation will take a look at each position to see where the roster is at -- and where it's going.

[+] EnlargeDrew Basil
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesDrew Basil is the incumbent kicker and is likely to take on punting duties in 2013 as well.
  • Who's back: With all the firepower the Buckeyes have returning and an aggressive coach who would clearly prefer never to need anybody to boot the football, the loss of punter Ben Buchanan may not be that big of a deal. But no offense is going to be perfect on every possession no matter how much Ohio State might score this fall, which makes filling the void the senior left a high priority this spring -- and could give kicker Drew Basil plenty to do. The Buckeyes recruited and received a commitment from a punter before Johnny Townsend ultimately elected to stay closer to home and sign with Florida, which has created something of a dilemma for Meyer and newly promoted special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs. But Basil does have one more year left to contribute with the program, and he will be the leading candidate at both positions heading into camp next week.
  • New face: Frank Epitropoulos isn't new to the program, but he could wind up being a fresh option to fill the hole at punter. The graduate of nearby Upper Arlington was recruited as a wide receiver and was listed at the position last fall during his first year with the Buckeyes, but the big leg he showed off as a three-way player in high school when averaged more than 42 yards per punt will make him a candidate as a specialist and could help take some of the burden off Basil.
  • Projected spring depth chart: Basil should enter spring practice as the starter at both positions, with Kyle Clinton backing him up at kicker and Epitropoulos potentially pushing for work at punter.
  • Numbers game: Meyer's fearless approach paid off in pressure situations as the Buckeyes led the country in fourth-down conversion percentage last fall, but it doesn't leave much of a sample size to judge Basil's accuracy as a kicker. Heading into the final week of the regular season, the rising senior had attempted just six field goals, making four of them. The Buckeyes needed him to deliver against rival Michigan to close out the undefeated campaign, though, and he doubled his total by making four of his five tries in the victory.
  • One to watch: There aren't many candidates, leaving Epitropoulos as the most intriguing option for the Buckeyes among the specialists. His numbers in high school suggest he has the strength and ability to potentially be productive at the next level, and with Ohio State loading up with dangerous weapons at wide receiver and creating stiff competition for playing time at the skill positions, handling the punting duties could provide a clearer path for Epitropoulos to contribute.
  • He said it: "Kerry Coombs is an excellent coach who has a great deal of experience and expertise with special teams. He is an outstanding teacher, an excellent motivator and he has a true passion for special teams." -- Meyer earlier this month

Kerry Coombs adds a coaching title

February, 8, 2013
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Kerry Coombs officially has another outlet for his seemingly bottomless supply of energy.

After making a positive impression during his first season as an assistant coach leading the cornerbacks, Coombs added some additional responsibilities on Friday with a promotion to become the program's special teams coordinator.

Coombs will continue to work with the cornerbacks as well, but the extra title qualifies as a promotion for the veteran coach following a productive first season working under coach Urban Meyer.

"Kerry Coombs is an excellent coach who has a great deal of experience and expertise with special teams," Meyer said in a release. "He is an outstanding teacher, an excellent motivator and he has a true passion for special teams."

(Read full post)

One thing Urban Meyer has definitely brought to the Big Ten is some serious signing day drama.

Meyer flipped several recruits Ohio State's way last year, and on Wednesday the Buckeyes were one of the big stories on signing day again. They won battles for two key blue-chippers in ESPN 150 safety Vonn Bell and four-star receiver James Clark, while also keeping ESPN 150 running back Ezekiel Elliott in the fold after he took a late visit to Missouri.

"It was a very eventful day," Meyer said. "We went to bed last night with three guys very on edge. I thought, 'If we hit one out of three, it would be all right. Two out of three would be a good day. Three out of three is going to be, knock it out of the park.'"

It turned into another home run day for the Buckeyes, who currently rank No. 3 nationally in ESPN.com's class rankings Insider (and No. 1 in Scout.com's rankings). How good was it? Here's what assistant coach Kerry Coombs tweeted Wednesday afternoon.
"You know that Christmas when you got exactly everything you wanted plus a few extra special bonuses? That's what today was! #bestclassever."

Ohio State did lose previously committed receiver Taivon Jacobs to Maryland, but it was more than happy to trade him for Clark. Landing Bell, a Georgian who was hotly pursued by Tennessee and Alabama, was the sweetest victory. Meyer called it a "street fight." In making his announcement on ESPN, Bell said Meyer was on a mission to beat Alabama and win national championships.

Meyer didn't take the bait when later asked about gunning for 'Bama, saying Michigan would always be Ohio State's rival. But he did acknowledge that there's "a little bit of a chase gong on with the SEC. ... We want to increase the speed on our team little bit."

The Buckeyes definitely did that, while Meyer once again proved he's one of the great closers in college football.

Though Ohio State hogged most of the headlines, the other Big Ten teams also celebrated their 2013 classes while making a little news as well:
  • Nebraska rode the roller coaster with ESPN 300 athlete Tre'vell Dixon, who had already committed, decommited and recommitted to the Huskers during the process before word leaked out this week he would be going to Arizona State. In the end, Dixon signed with Nebraska, which put together a Top 25 class.
  • Minnesota scored a late coup with junior college linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, a one-time Tennessee commit who was expected to sign with Kansas State. Campbell, who was also courted by Texas, has three years of eligibility left.
  • Wisconsin lost committed safety Marcus Ball -- whose older brother, Ray, is a Badgers offensive lineman -- to Arizona State. But new coach Gary Andersen managed to hold most of the class together while adding a few key signees.
  • There was a little intraconference intrigue on signing day as Iowa nabbed linebacker Reggie Spearman, who had been committed to Illinois.
  • Indiana quietly put together one of its best classes ever, and avoided any last-minute poaching.
  • No news was good news at Penn State and Michigan. The Nittany Lions, despite severe scholarship limits, still brought home a strong collection of talent that included the nation's No. 1 pro-style quarterback (Christian Hackenberg) and top tight end (Adam Breneman). The bulk of Michigan's class had been assembled for months, and the Wolverines withstood some late drama with defensive tackle Henry Poggi, who stayed on board despite a late push from Alabama.

Michigan didn't get as much attention on signing day as Ohio State, but Brady Hoke still put together a class currently ranked No. 6 in the nation by ESPN.com. And unlike Meyer, who got so tired of sweating out Bell's decision that he had to go get on the treadmill, Hoke had a drama-free day. The Wolverines announced their entire class by noon ET.

One thing that appears likely after the latest signing day: Michigan and Ohio State are headed for plenty of dramatic collisions on the field in the coming years.

You can see every Big Ten team's signees by going here.


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