Ohio State football: Changes coming to Buckeyes’ pass defense

For football nerds, the huddle of reporters around Shaun Wade was the place to be recently at Ohio State.

The sophomore cornerback had the goods when it comes to what changes are coming to the Buckeye defense in 2019.

“We start, we’ll probably be in Cover 3,” Wade said, referring to a basic and ubiquitous zone defense that drops both cornerbacks and a safety into deep zones with the other safety and the three linebackers playing shallow zones underneath them.

But the label Cover 3 only partly describes what Ohio State will do.

“You don’t know if we’re in Cover 3 or man because the corners are pressed and bailing out late,” Wade continued.

This confirmed suspicions new co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley is installing the unique flavor of Cover 3 he ran last season as an assistant with the San Francisco 49ers.

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Developed earlier in the decade by the Seattle Seahawks, it is a variation in which instead of lining up off the line of scrimmage and dropping deep at the snap, the cornerbacks begin tight on the outside receivers before falling back into their deep zone only if the receivers begin to go up the field off the snap.

That allows the DBs to defend quick, short routes while also making deep throws more difficult to complete (a problem area for Ohio State last year).

Wade described that style and the options it brings, but it was only part of the story.

Brendon White had more.

The rising junior safety indicated the Buckeyes will offer a variety of looks.

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Against offenses with two backs and a tight end (called “21 personnel” in football terminology) or a running back and two tight ends (12 personnel), they will mix man and zone with one deep safety and the other safety closer to the line of scrimmage to help stop the run. (This set will have three “traditional” linebackers on the field, as Ohio State often did during the Urban Meyer era through multiple defensive coordinators.)

“It’s a ‘one-high safety’ (defense) so you’ve got to cover a lot of ground,” White said. “They want us in the run first and pass second because we’ve got to fill that alley.”

Against the far more common college offenses with one back and a tight end (11 personnel) or one back and four receivers (10 personnel), Ohio State will have multiple answers. They include two safeties, two linebackers and a fifth defensive back, but the identity of the fifth DB will vary depending on the style of offense the Buckeyes are facing.

That is where Wade and White come back into the picture.

Versatility To Be Key

Wade and White are good sources for information not just because they were important parts of last year’s disappointing defense but also because they are two individuals whose versatility could unlock the whole package this fall.

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound White seems destined top be on the field at all times. He will play one of the “normal” safety spots when Ohio State has three linebackers on the field, but he will also be a Swiss army knife known as the “Bullet” in other defensive packages. In that role, he could be an extra defensive back on one play, a linebacker the next and even a pass rushing end on another play.

“People aren’t going to let you substitute anymore,” new defensive co-coordinator Greg Mattison said in explaining the Bullet position, which he brought with him from Michigan, where it was known as the Viper. “They don’t let you do that anymore with tempo, so now if you have that right guy and he can play the run strong enough and then help you with the things you want to do in the secondary.”

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When Ohio State faces spread offenses that are more pass-happy (and on passing downs against any team), White and Jordan Fuller (who is out this spring recovering from offseason surgery) are likely to be the safeties with Wade becoming the fifth defensive back instead.

In this case, the 6-1, 194-pound Wade would be more like a third cornerback whose primary responsibility is pass defense, but he could blitz, too, and must be able to set the edge if there is a run in his direction.

“What I think is best for Shaun is to learn to play inside, whether you call it a safety or a nickel,” Hafley said. “It’s valuable for him. So I want him to be able to play outside playing corner, inside playing nickel, have the ability to drop back. I want to teach these guys how to play the game. I don’t want them to be just pigeon-holed into one position. I want them to learn to play football and play different positions because I think it will help us and it will hep them in the future.”

Ohio State Spring Game

When: Noon, Saturday, April 13

Where: Ohio Stadium, Columbus

Tickets: $5 general admission

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