Ohio State Buckeyes: Tyvis Powell

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.

Was the spring injury a setback for Vonn Bell?

[+] EnlargeVonn Bell
Zach Bolinger/Icon SMIVonn Bell, who is a likely starter in the Ohio State secondary in 2014, missed spring practice with a knee injury.
Bell finally had the big stage and an opportunity that was even bigger to show why he was such a coveted recruit. The Ohio State safety certainly made the most of it with an eye-popping, one-handed interception in the Discover Orange Bowl that only raised the expectations moving into his sophomore season.

There was another chance to impress waiting for him in spring practice, with a new coach in the secondary ready to watch him and a fresh, aggressive scheme that seems perfectly suited to capitalize on his athleticism. But this time the result wasn't the same, as a fluke injury on the opening day of workouts ended his camp shortly after it started.

Bell is expected to be a full participant in the offseason program after undergoing minor knee surgery, but there's no question he would have benefited from the live reps he missed during March and April. After spending so much of his first year of the program in a reserve role, Bell would have had no shortage of snaps to work on his technique, absorb the system and make sure that co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash headed into the summer as sold on Bell's ability as the rest of the staff was during a heated recruiting battle for his services.

Ash, of course, has seen the film from the Orange Bowl and is obviously aware of the physical tools Bell can bring to the lineup alongside Tyvis Powell in the reworked secondary. And while Ash didn't express any concerns about the absence during practice, with fellow rising sophomore Cam Burrows helping fill the void during spring, it seems safe to assume that everybody would have benefited from having Bell healthy during the spring and pointing toward the fall.

"From a physical standpoint, yeah, it’s too bad that he’s not out there," Ash said. "But does it hurt us? No, it’s next man in. Cam Burrows has stepped in, taking advantage of the opportunity, and done a great job. Vonn will be healthy soon and we’re going to have a great competition for those safety positions.

"Would Vonn benefit from the opportunities? Absolutely. Is he going to hurt himself because of it? Not necessarily."

Either way, the Buckeyes now will have to wait until August to see Bell's capability.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 20, 2014
May 20
12:00
PM ET
You cannot give up on the gravy.
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If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.

1. "I like my team."

2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesPat Fitzgerald's Wildcats had to deal with a lot off the field this spring.
College coaches have recited those phrases in spring ball for decades. The 14 men leading Big Ten programs are no exceptions. But the standard spring sentiments apply to the league more this year than most.

There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.

"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."

Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.

It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.

The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.

Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.

Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.

Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.

Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.

"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.

Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.

[+] EnlargeRaekwon McMillan
Miller Safrit/ESPNEarly enrollee Raekwon McMillan could make an immediate impact for Ohio State's defense this fall.
Ohio State didn't have star quarterback Braxton Miller for spring ball because of shoulder surgery, but the Buckeyes focused on bolstering a defense that struggled last fall. Freshman Raekwon McMillan, an early enrollee, is pushing for the starting middle linebacker spot, and competition will continue at the cornerback spot opposite Doran Grant. Chris Ash, the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator, worked to simplify the scheme this spring.

"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."

Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.

At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.

"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."

Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.

Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.

The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.

"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."

They won't have to for 132 days.

Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.
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.
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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 -- The changes to Ohio State's defensive scheme will have to wait.

For now, Chris Ash is only focused on how the Buckeyes go about their business, regardless of the schemes the new co-defensive coordinator might install to fix a unit in need of repairs.

More man coverage and a new package of aggressive blitzes were part of the promises that accompanied Urban Meyer’s hiring of Ash in the offseason. But at least through the first half of spring camp, there has been no deep dive into the playbook. At this point, Ash has largely stayed on the first few pages, keeping the approach as simple as possible in the first phase of the rebuilding job, focusing on effort above everything else.

“It doesn’t matter what we do schematically,” Ash said. “We’re going to have a philosophy; we’re going to have a system, an identity for what we’re doing. But really, it’s about how hard we play and how consistent we are doing it.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesTyvis Powell and Ohio State are focusing on effort in the defensive backfield so far in spring practice.
“What I’m happy about so far is the effort that guys are giving. The guys have bought into what I’m coaching, what I’m teaching and they’re coming out here and practicing extremely hard. That’s all I care about right now. With the changes from the past, I couldn’t tell you because I don’t know what it was like before.”

Ash might not have any baseline with which to compare Ohio State’s practices this spring compared to the last couple of seasons, but the returning players certainly do. And the differences have not gone unnoticed at the midway point of spring practice.

The coaching staff has kept a running tally of loafs in practice, pointing out when players are coasting or failing to meet the oft-repeated standard of giving “4 to 6 seconds” of relentless effort from “Point A to Point B.” The Buckeyes are picking up every loose ball and trying to duplicate “scoop-and-score” scenarios. Every interception is supposed to be returned at least 10 yards at full speed, though safety Tyvis Powell has taken it upon himself to double that when the football comes his way, trying to build his case as a potential leader for the revamped secondary.

That type of gesture and work ethic won’t go unnoticed by Ash, mostly because it’s exactly what he’s looking for before adding wrinkles to a pass defense that finished last season ranked No. 110 in the nation.

“There’s really not much [that’s difficult to learn] because it’s all that simple right now,” Powell said. “They’re not overloading us with plays or different schemes right now; everything is really kind of basic. They’re not trying to put in too many plays. They’re just making sure that we master what they’re already giving us.

“Basically the biggest difference right now is just flying around. ... Practice was kind of relaxed, but it’s getting back to high energy now. They demand effort out of us right now, so that’s the best thing about it.”

In some respects, that’s about the only demand the Buckeyes are making on defense.

They’re allowed to give up big plays if mistakes happen, as long as those gains don't come as a result of lackadaisical effort. If an assignment is missed, that can be excused if a player does everything possible to make up for it by chasing down the football. Even if the fundamentals aren’t perfect, there’s still plenty of time to address that later as well.

“We have some talented players here, and if they can be consistently in the right spots and executing and going with maximum effort, we’re going to do pretty well,” Ash said. “The first thing I want to make sure they’re doing is coming out here and living the culture of Ohio State football that coach Meyer has -- that’s going 4-to-6, A-to-B and playing with extreme effort. As long as we can do that, we’ll fix anything else that we have wrong.”

Those changes are coming, too. For now, Ash’s top priority is as simple to understand as the scheme.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14
4:30
PM ET
Last mail call before the weekend. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter. Join the 100K strong.

Let's get started ...

Bob from Cary, N.C., writes: How do we measure the competitive strength of East vs. West over time? My hunch is that over the next five to 10 years Maryland/Rutgers will flourish and Iowa/Minnesota/Illinois will flounder. The West teams will be less visible in the media of NYC/DC and recruiting areas of Ohio/Pennsylvania. This very scenario was a factor in Nebraska's decision to leave the B12. Can the B1G avoid the obvious disparity between East and West over time?

Adam Rittenberg: Bob, ultimately you measure the divisions by which teams are winning league titles and which division has more strength at the top. The East Division appears to have an edge, but I don't know if Rutgers or Maryland will flourish simply because of its location. Both programs must invest a lot more into football to keep pace with programs that have more tradition and more resources. Big Ten revenues undoubtedly will help both newcomers, but it's not easy to compete with Ohio State, Michigan and others.

It's important for West Division teams to maintain a presence in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and to recruit well in the new areas. Remember that Illinois had a huge recruiting presence in Washington, D.C., when Mike Locksley was on staff. The Illini didn't need Maryland in the league or the Big Ten TV presence in the market to have success. Do West Division teams have some geographic challenges? Sure. But the right coaches and the right recruiting approaches -- combined with winning -- should keep the divisions balanced enough.


Kenny from Cincinnati writes: Vonn Bell is injured for the spring but as a safety, how important are those practices? I feel like by now they know his abilities. I think watching film and terminology work might actually be more beneficial for a young upstart with a new coach. But then again maybe I am looking for a positive in a suspect secondary.

Adam Rittenberg: Bell is still just a sophomore, Kenny, so he could have benefited from the practices, especially with a new safeties coach -- and co-defensive coordinator -- in Chris Ash. But Ohio State saw what Bell could do in a starting role in the Orange Bowl, where he had an interception and seven tackles. Bell could have locked up a starting safety spot with a strong spring, but he'll still have time to impress Ash in the summer. Ash told me last month that safety Tyvis Powell, along with cornerback Doran Grant, had really stood out in the offseason. I'd be surprised if Powell doesn't start at one safety spot. Bell must earn the other.


Rob from New York writes: I find that one of the underdiscussed factors in the Big Ten's recent, drastic decline has been the improvement of the MAC and, as it's related, the Big Ten's inability to pull in those athletes. There's really no reason why Khalil Mack should be playing for Buffalo instead of any of the Big Ten schools. Jordan Lynch should be playing for Illinois or Northwestern, but he went to NIU. Same story with Eric Fisher, why wasn't he at Michigan or Michigan State? I'd say part of this has to do with the fact that recruiting networks aren't the same in the North as they are in the South, but it's hard not to blame the Big Ten coaches as well.

Adam Rittenberg: Rob, I agree there are some excellent MAC players who could have helped Big Ten teams. Mack, Lynch and Fisher certainly are three of them. But is the MAC really an improved league? I say no. The MAC has declined since the early part of the 2000s, when you had Marshall, Miami (Ohio), Bowling Green and Toledo surging, and Northern Illinois was starting to break through. Sure, the MAC records some upset wins every season, but Northern Illinois was outclassed in the Orange Bowl and no other league squad has reached a BCS bowl. Maybe Bowling Green will change things, but this league isn't the TCU-BYU-Utah Mountain West. I agree that the MAC has some great players overlooked by bigger schools in recruiting. But that always has been true, just as it is in the Sun Belt, Conference USA, etc. As a league, the MAC, much like the Big Ten, leaves something to be desired.


Anthony from Arlington, Va., writes: Great choice on the week 8 trip to College Park for the Iowa/Maryland game. I'm not sure if you're aware, but the Iowa alumni base in the DMV is huge. So huge, in fact, that I anticipate one-third of Byrd Stadium will be Hawkeye fans. I'll even make a bet. If it's less then drinks are on me postgame. If I'm right, you get to shake your rump to the victory polka!

Adam Rittenberg: Anthony, there are several Big Ten fan bases with a sizable presence in the area. Indiana and Penn State are two others. These existing Big Ten pockets contributed to the league's decision to pursue Maryland. OK, you really want to see me dance the polka? I'll tell you what. If my editors actually send me to Iowa-Maryland, you've got a deal. Just make sure there are no cameras around.


Jon from Chicago writes: Any word on if MSU and Oregon will have new uniforms from Nike for their game this fall? It'd be a great idea, right, especially since this will be one of the biggest games of the year.

Adam Rittenberg: Jon, nothing has been finalized yet, but I would fully expect Nike to make a splash for the game. Oregon has a vast array of uniform combinations, and Michigan State has unveiled a few new versions in recent seasons. Maybe instead of the green vs. green pairing, we'll get something like this from the Ducks and something equally wacky/non-traditional from MSU. As long as the recruits like it, right?

Early OSU observations: No. 4

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
10:00
AM ET
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State’s two practices to open camp before taking the week off for spring break gives one a peek at some new faces and a couple changes. While the Buckeyes are gearing up for the sprint to the finish of spring workouts, we’re looking at the early developments and what they mean moving forward for Urban Meyer’s team.

No. 4: Safeties getting squeezed

[+] EnlargeVonn Bell
Zach Bolinger/Icon SMISafety Vonn Bell's knee surgery knocks him out for the spring.
The process was never expected to go smoothly or easily, but Ohio State surely could have done without a setback popping up on the first day of camp as it set out to repair its damaged pass defense.

Urban Meyer made clear that a few coverage breakdowns were to be expected as the Buckeyes installed a more aggressive scheme in the secondary, and so he wasn’t troubled by the big plays that were given up as practice opened with the offense clearly getting the better of the defense. He also recognized that there wasn’t enough depth at safety for his liking, but losing projected starter Vonn Bell to knee surgery for the rest of spring after that first workout might have been more difficult for Meyer to stomach than a few deep balls completed to wide-open receivers.

Bell is expected to be back to full speed by May after the minor procedure for a tear in his medial collateral ligament, more than enough time to allow him to take advantage of the offseason program and get physically ready for his critical role on the back line. But with new co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Chris Ash installing his new system, reps in March and April would have been invaluable for Bell, particularly because Meyer expressed confidence only in him, Cam Burrows and returning starter Tyvis Powell as options at safety.

The Buckeyes have two newcomers on the way in the fall, but the lack of depth at the position during the spring might be unsettling for a team that was devastated by just one key injury during the season, as everything fell apart after losing Christian Bryant in late September. Bell’s injury isn’t nearly as serious, but it offered a quick reminder that the secondary is going to hit some potholes on the road to rebuilding.
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.

Players to watch in spring: No. 2

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

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

No. 2: Vonn Bell, safety

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

Best B1G games of 2013: No. 1

February, 4, 2014
Feb 4
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Today, we conclude our countdown of the Top 10 games from the Big Ten in 2013. Remember that we took into account the stakes in the game, the excitement level, the quality of the performances and the atmosphere.

The top game on our list is from the top rivalry in the league ...

No. 1: Ohio State 42, Michigan 41, Nov. 30

[+] EnlargeQuarterback Devin Gardner #98 of the Michigan Wolverines
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesQuarterback Devin Gardner and the Wolverines couldn't quite complete the upset of Ohio State.
How it went down: On paper, the latest edition of The Game looked like a mismatch. Ohio State had won 23 straight, while Michigan struggled often in 2013.

But don't underestimate the fire a rivalry game can ignite. For proof, just look to the second quarter fight that nearly spun out of control and led to Marcus Hall flipping the double bird to Wolverines fans on his way out of the stadium.

After the first half ended in a 21-21 tie, Ohio State opened up a two-touchdown lead late in the third quarter. But the Wolverines clawed back to tie it up again on a pair of Devin Gardner touchdown passes. The Buckeyes regained the lead on Carlos Hyde's 1-yard run with 2:20 left, and Michigan answered on another Gardner touchdown pass with just 32 seconds to go.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke made the bold call to go for the two-point conversion instead of playing for overtime. Ohio State's defense was ready for the play, however, as Tyvis Powell intercepted Gardner's pass in the end zone. The Buckeyes sealed it by recovering the onsides kick, capping a wild game that saw the two teams combine for over 1,100 yards of offense.

So why this one at No. 1? Well, the stakes were there, with Ohio State still holding onto BCS national title hopes. The rivalry intensified everything. And of course there was the bonkers ending. This was the best edition of The Game since 2006, and it was the best Big Ten game of 2013.

Player of the game: Hard to pick just one. Gardner threw for 451 yards and had five total touchdowns, exposing the Achilles' heel of Ohio State's defense. The fact -- later revealed -- that Gardner played the second half on a broken foot makes his performance more remarkable in retrospect. Hyde willed his team to victory by rushing for 226 yards on 27 carries. And Braxton Miller added five touchdowns and 153 yards rushing.

Stat of the game: Ohio State ran for 393 yards, averaging 8.5 yards per carry.

They said it: "That's an instant classic," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.

More best games

  • No. 10: Ohio State 31, Wisconsin 24
  • No. 9: Michigan 41, Notre Dame 30
  • No. 8: Arizona State 32, Wisconsin 30
  • No. 7: Ohio State 40, Northwestern 30
  • No. 6: Penn State 43, Michigan 40, 4 OT
  • No. 5: Michigan State 34, Ohio State 24
  • No. 4: Nebraska 27, Northwestern 24
  • No. 3: Clemson 40, Ohio State 35
  • No. 2: Michigan State 24, Stanford 20

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

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Ohio State has no reason to apologize for its 12-2 season, even if the Buckeyes did fall short of their goals by losing in the Big Ten title game and in Friday’s Discover Orange Bowl to Clemson.

Still, the Buckeyes are a program that expects to win championships.

“This would be an unbelievable season for some people,” center Corey Linsley said after the 40-35 loss to Clemson. “They would be building statues about it at other universities. This is just another year gone by for us.”

Ohio State should enter next season in or near the top 10, especially with Braxton Miller expected to return for his senior season at quarterback. But as Urban Meyer’s team found out after winning 24 straight games and then losing its final two, that last step toward winning a championship is often the hardest. And significant challenges await in 2014.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesUrban Meyer's Buckeyes will need to replace some key players on both sides of the ball in 2014.
The offseason focus will center around fixing a defense that was dreadful in its final three games of the season. That job won’t include the services of star linebacker Ryan Shazier, who announced on Saturday that he’ll be leaving for the NFL, or cornerback Bradley Roby, who is also bolting Columbus for the pros.

Meyer has given every indication that he intends to keep Luke Fickell on as defensive coordinator, but the departure of co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Everett Withers opens the possibility of bringing in a veteran defensive coach who can offer strong input at the very least.

“We’ve just got to go out and recruit out tails off,” Meyer said. “Got to develop players and work real hard with scheme. We’ll get there.”

The Orange Bowl offered an early look at the future, especially with Roby sidelined by a knee injury. The Buckeyes started six freshmen or sophomores on defense versus the Tigers. While the overall numbers weren’t good, there were encouraging signs of potential.

Sophomore Jamal Marcus got his first career start in place of the suspended Noah Spence and was very active, finishing with six tackles. With Spence also sitting out the first two games of 2014, Marcus could play early next season and, at the very least, create some excellent depth along a still-young defensive line.

“I’m really proud of what Jamal did stepping in for Noah,” fellow defensive end Joey Bosa said. “He had a great week of practice, we had a lot of confidence in him, and he went in there and played his heart out.”

The same could be said of Bosa, who turned in a terrific true freshman campaign and showed loads of toughness in the Orange Bowl despite a sprained ankle. Limping noticeably in the second half, he remained in the game and finished with a sack and a forced safety. He has super stardom written all over him.

“It was rough,” he said of the injury. “It was really hard to plant off it. I was just doing what I could do.”

Meyer called sophomore linebacker Joshua Perry one of the most improved players on the team during bowl practice, and if he can continue to develop, it could lessen the loss of Shazier. But Ohio State’s linebacker play needs to get better.

The secondary was depleted by the end of the season but has some promising prospects. True freshman Vonn Bell made his first start at nickel, and though he got burned early on a difficult one-on-one matchup against Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, he also made a one-handed interception near his own end zone that should be the first of many highlight plays for him. Sophomore Tyvis Powell also made his first start at safety, while sophomore Armani Reeves filled in for Roby.

“We’ve got a lot to build on,” cornerback Doran Grant said. “We’ve got some guys who can really play. I’m excited to see them play next season and see what they’ve got in the spring.”

The offense has its own question marks even with Miller back in the fold. Start with the offensive line, which was the engine of the Buckeyes' attack. It loses four senior starters, with only sophomore right tackle Taylor Decker returning. Senior Carlos Hyde, who ran for more than 1,500 yards in just 11 games, also will be gone. Same goes for the team’s leading receiver, Philly Brown.

The schedule finally toughens up, with nonconference games against Navy, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati and the new East Division that will include reigning Big Ten champion Michigan State. The Spartans, who play host to Ohio State on Nov. 8, may begin the fall as favorites to win the division.

Meyer has talked repeatedly about wanting to field an angry and hungry team. The master motivator shouldn’t need many slogans this spring to push a team that suffered two crushing losses on its biggest stages.

“I hope there’s hunger,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman. “I hope that the guys who are coming back feel the knot in their stomach that I do right now and want to fix the things we need to fix to make sure we don’t feel like this again.”

Ohio State will still have plenty of talent in 2014 and a coach who knows how to use it. The Buckeyes weren’t far off from winning a championship this season and expect to be in position again next fall. This isn't a rebuilding job by any sense. But some repairs are needed.

“I think we’re extremely close,” Linsley said. “Everybody will say the O-line is down, that if Shazier is gone, if Roby is gone, those guys are going to slack [on defense]. But I’m telling you, some of these guys haven't gone through an offseason here before. I’m excited to see what these guys will do next year."
A look at the last lessons of the season after No. 7 Ohio State came up short in a 40-35 shootout against No. 12 Clemson on Friday night in the Discover Orange Bowl.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Allen Kee / ESPN ImagesDespite two late turnovers Friday, Braxton Miller's performance in the Discover Orange Bowl was admirable and gave the Buckeyes a chance to win.
Defensive future is actually bright: The same old mistakes popped up again on defense, and with so many important contributors either on the sideline or back in Columbus, that should really come as no surprise. Clemson had a veteran quarterback, a freakish athlete at wide receiver and a solid game plan, and it was always likely to put up points. But Jamal Marcus shined at defensive end in place of Noah Spence. With Christian Bryant still injured and Corey Brown struggling, Tyvis Powell proved he was ready for a full-time role. And given the chance to play in the nickel package, Vonn Bell snagged an impressive interception that offered a reminder of how blessed he is physically. The pipeline is starting to fill up with talent, and Ohio State could easily be back to an elite level on defense in 2014.

Miller memories: The decision is expected within a week, and there’s a chance that Braxton Miller’s final throw with the program will be an interception that sealed the loss in the closing minutes. But the junior quarterback did plenty just to keep the Buckeyes in the game, delivering the kind of plays the way he has throughout his career despite clearly being at less than full strength. Whether Miller returns or not, the way he gutted his way to 269 yards of total offense and four combined touchdowns is what should be remembered, not the final pick.

Killer instinct lacking: The play that changed Friday's game was pretty clear, as Philly Brown muffed a punt that was begging for a fair catch in the third quarter with Ohio State up 29-20, which would have set the Buckeyes up with good field position and a chance to just about clinch a BCS bowl victory with a touchdown. Ohio State ran into similar problems in the Michigan State loss, as the Buckeyes were up seven with the ball in the third quarter before the Spartans came back to win. Maybe it’s a small sample size, but both losses to end the season were well within Ohio State’s control down the stretch, and it will need to finish off top-notch opponents if its going to be a national-championship contender.

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