Buckeyes expect secondary to lead way

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Just about every preseason story on Ohio State will mention the youth of the defense. Head coach Urban Meyer has said on more than one occasion that the Buckeyes have "a leadership void" they must fill.

Well, it makes sense to look first to the back end of the defense for those answers. One place where Ohio State has plenty of experience is at safety, where seniors Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett are both third-year starters. The secondary also boasts an All-American in Bradley Roby, who's never been afraid to speak his mind.

"I think it's important that me, Christian and Roby take ownership of the defense," Barnett told ESPN.com. "We've got a lot of young guys who look up to us."

Defensive leaders more often are found closer to the line of scrimmage, as those guys are involved in more plays and gain respect for their physicality. But Ohio State is replacing all four defensive linemen from last year and has only one holdover starter -- Ryan Shazier -- at linebacker.

"It's probably a little harder to lead at that [safety] position," said Everett Withers, who coaches the Buckeyes' safeties in addition to serving as assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator. "But C.J. and Christian have played a lot of snaps, and the front guys and the linebackers all respect those guys for what they've done here. When you have respect from your peers, that makes it a little bit easier."

That's not to say that Bryant and Barnett are satisfied with their accomplishments.

Though they've both played a lot for the Buckeyes -- and Bryant was a second-team All-Big Ten performer last year -- Barnett said the safeties have "underachieved" thus far during their careers. That's a message that seems filtered down from their coaches, who are demanding more.

"He's right on point; I think they have underachieved," Withers said. "No disrespect to what's been done in the past, but when you play safety at a place like Ohio State, you've got a great tradition of safety play. And when guys don't have a ton of production going into their senior year you wonder why. And I've wondered why since I've gotten here. So there's been a big push for us to see how we can be more productive on the field, and in turn, that will allow us to be better leaders off the field."

Though Bryant finished second on the team with 70 tackles, he has only one career interception. Barnett has four career picks in 32 games. Ohio State led the Big Ten last year in interceptions with 14 in 12 games, but Withers called that "a low number" and said the Buckeyes dropped another 14 potential interceptions.

That's why, during spring practice, every Buckeyes defensive back had to drop and do pushups if a ball hit their hands and they didn't make the interception, no matter how tough the catch would have been.

"Myself, I had about six or seven drops last year," Barnett said. "That's unacceptable. Coach said that PBU's [pass break-ups] are not acceptable here. We need interceptions.

"That's huge for field position, and when you've got an offense like we do and you can get the ball back in Braxton [Miller]'s hands, that's leading to points for us. Missing those opportunities are huge and could possibly cost us a game."

Production wasn't really an issue in 2012 for Roby, although he'd like to grab more than two interceptions this season. But Roby didn't view himself as a leader last season. This year, Meyer said, "he's got to be" one.

"I was kind of a selfish player last year, only worrying about me," Roby said. "At cornerback, you really are out there on an island, and so you start thinking the game is only you and the receiver. I was taking that viewpoint. But I'm opening it up now, and I know I've got to talk to the D-linemen, the linebackers and everybody and make sure they know what they're doing, because they might not be as far advanced as I am."

The best players often make the best leaders. And with their experience and talent, the Buckeyes' secondary has a chance to be both of those things.

"It's just a matter of us going out there and making the plays we need to make," Barnett said. "If we handle our business, we'll definitely be in the conversation of being the best secondary in the nation."