Following the spring game in Columbus, one thing was quite clear: Ohio State made sure to address its issues with respect to coverage in the back end. The Buckeyes defenders, under co-defensive coordinators Chris Ash and Luke Fickell, have responded to their issues from a season ago and pushed to match patterns, relate to receivers and make plays on the football.
Spring games are often difficult to use to make evaluations for a given team. Formats differ, rules vary tremendously and who is active—and to what extent—is always a crap shoot, something Martin Rickman at Sports Illustrated points out in his Buckeyes spring game recap. However, a true shift in mentality is something that is noticeable, regardless of personnel or watered-down play-calling.
For Ohio State, little was discovered with respect to the quarterback position. Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett failed to show separation as they battle for the backup job. Expected starting running back Ezekiel Elliott was extremely limited. The defensive side of the ball played four-man fronts almost exclusively.
Yet it was clear something was different in the back seven of the Buckeyes' defense.
Prior to the Big Ten championship game, the Buckeyes' issues with route relations was discussed. The same was mentioned before Urban Meyer's team took on the Clemson Tigers in the Orange Bowl. Entering spring, the need to work on pass coverage was again noted here.
And the Buckeyes went out and addressed that very issue.
Here is Ohio State from a season ago.
Notice the air between the defenders and the receiver. This was the Buckeyes' defense on short and intermediate routes for the bulk of 2013. Close to the receiver but with big enough windows for quarterbacks to hit targets and rack up yardage, as you can see in the chart below.
|300+ Yard Passing Performances vs Ohio State in 2013|
Although Meyer's team was able to get through the first four of those contests with wins—the closest coming against Michigan—come season's end against better teams, coverage failures would cause losses. Michigan State's passing game blossomed against the opportunity presented by the Buckeyes, as did Clemson's spread, quick target attack.
In order to get to where Meyer and his program want to go, fixing the pass coverage was a must for 2014. Part of that came with the change in mentality reported by Ari Wasserman at Cleveland.com. Although the talk centers on the cornerbacks in press, a look at the spring game shows the entire defense has shifted it's mentality from wait-and-see to an attacking-the-football mode.
That is the route combination and alignment for the Buckeyes. The running back goes from a pistol alignment to standing next to the quarterback on his left. Then he works a play-action fake as the receivers get into the designated route combinations.
As the play progresses, the difference for the Buckeyes in 2014 comes into play.
The Buckeyes have taken the air out of the play. No. 5 Raekwon McMillan, a true freshman linebacker, gets a hand on the football as he plays underneath the crosser. The safety is clearly blowing up the play; if the receiver had gotten a hand on the football, the safety was going to separate the man from the ball. The second safety, No. 16 Cam Burrows, is carrying the route over the top, closing to make a play as well.
This is not only a major improvement for the Buckeyes defense, but it was something the different units and personnel showed time and again over the course of the spring game. This was representative not of a group ready to play, but of a defensive squad that has made a full mentality change.
That is not just McMillan or Burrows or a handful of players. It includes veterans like Curtis Grant, Joshua Perry and the rest of the linebacking corps. It includes safeties and corners that are going to take the field come September against Navy and play throughout the hopeful 2014 College Football Playoff campaign.
Meyer's offense is going to go. Fickell's defense is going to stop the run. The missing link for Ohio State in 2013 came in the form of defending the pass. The addition of Ash and a new mentality as a unit are remedies to the heel-sitting approach from a year ago.
The Buckeyes recognized a vulnerable area and seized the opportunity to not only fix the problem, but turn a weakness into a strength. If the defense continues to build on the spring's progress, it should find defending the pass to be a treat, not a nightmare, in 2014.