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Ohio State: Versatility in scheme, personnel top priority for Silver Bullets

Jeff Hafley-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football
Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley wants a versatile, flexible defense with the Buckeyes.

Question Of The Day

Ohio State: Versatility in scheme, personnel top priority for Silver Bullets

The speculation, debate and conversations about Ohio State never end, and Lettermen Row is always ready to dive into the discussions. All week long, senior writer Austin Ward will field topics about the Buckeyes submitted by readers and break down anything that’s on the minds of the Best Damn Fans in the Land. Have a question that needs to be tackled, like the one today about the Bullet and the retooled Ohio State defense? Send it in right here — and check back daily for the answers.

Ohio State isn’t going to limit its options. And after a season in which it was far too stubborn with its defensive approach, that clearly seems to be a breath of fresh air in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

The Buckeyes are embracing the chance to throw different looks at opponents in the secondary, mixing in zone coverages to complement the press-man schemes that still work with elite cornerbacks like the program still has on the roster. After two years of struggles at linebacker, Ohio State has tweaked the alignment and worked with different personnel packages to help unlock the potential of a unit that isn’t remotely short on talent. Even the Rushmen have unveiled some three-man fronts as part of the shakeup, reinforcing the idea that everything must be on the table to get the overall defense back to the standard of the Silver Bullets.

Clearly one position in particular has dominated the attention so far in spring camp. But the truth is the Bullet is just the clearest example of how both positional and schematic versatility is the order of business for the Buckeyes right now. If Ohio State didn’t have the personnel on hand to play with that hybrid role, there’s no reason whatsoever to think the coaching staff would be spending so much time on it right now.

Brendon White-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State defender Brendon White has the kind of versatility the Buckeyes crave. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

There are still some questions about it that will need to be sorted out, including what it means for the rotation at linebacker when the traditional safety mode is flipped off for Brendon White. There’s still no definitive plan in place for how often the Bullet will be used, and it will almost certainly be determined on a weekly basis depending on matchups and the flow of a game. But it’s already becoming clear that Ohio State is comfortable making it a key part of the playbook because of the depth at safety, and questions about the strength of that unit are really in the rearview mirror thanks to White, the return of Jordan Fuller, the rise of Josh Proctor, improvement with Isaiah Pryor and the do-it-all flexibility of Shaun Wade.

“It’s pretty multiple,” Hafley said. “Free safety, strong safety, Bullet — we’re kind of rotating all the guys through those spots right now. Sometimes you’ll see them in the middle of the field, sometimes you’ll see them in the half, sometimes you’ll see them in the box, sometimes you’ll see them lined up over the slot.

“Really all three of those guys are pretty versatile, so you could take any safety in our room and we’re trying to make it so we can plug and play them at all those positions. We don’t just say: You’re this. The more multiple we can be, the more we can do on defense.”

That same multiplicity applies at linebacker, which has its own issues to sort through after the well-documented breakdowns over the last two seasons. It’s true that Ohio State has an incredible collection of talent on hand with all three starters returning and strong pushes for playing time coming from Baron Browning, Teradja Mitchell and Dallas Gant behind Malik Harrison, Tuf Borland and Pete Werner. The addition of the Bullet position can be a complication when it comes to finding snaps for everybody, but the Buckeyes are also in an enviable spot with that much talent at their disposal as they figure out a rotation. It’s possible there might even be an outcome for Ohio State where it can mix and match depending on what it faces from week to week, perhaps even allowing for the linebackers to specialize in certain situations and create packages that can line up against any kind of attack.

Some of this speculation, of course, is premature right now — even after 10 practices for the Buckeyes. Until the coaching staff puts together a game plan, plays against a real opponent and shows exactly what it intends to do this season defensively, there’s no reason to believe that scheme is being valued over personnel.

In fact, if anything has become clear throughout this camp for the Buckeyes as they rebuild the defense, it’s that these new assistants want as many options available to the Silver Bullets as possible.

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Austin Ward is Lettermen Row's senior writer covering Ohio State football and basketball. The award-winning journalist has covered the Buckeyes since 2012, spending five of those seasons working for ESPN after previous stints at the Casper Star-Tribune and Knoxville News Sentinel.

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