Position preview: Defensive backs

Breaking down the Ohio State roster with training camp over and the program turning its attention to the opener on Saturday against Buffalo.


Top of the depth chart: Bradley Roby and Doran Grant at cornerback and Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett at safety, with Tyvis Powell at the star position in nickel situations. (Note: Roby will miss the opener because of suspension.)

Next in line: Armani Reeves won a heated competition against the next wave of Ohio State cornerbacks during training camp, and he’ll replace Roby in the starting lineup for the opener. Corey “Pittsburgh” Brown will add to the rotation at safety and should see plenty of action in the dime package.

New faces: Arguably the deepest, most talented class of defensive backs in the country signed in February with the Buckeyes, and they could make a mark as early as this fall, given the combination of athleticism and the likelihood coordinator Luke Fickell will be leaning heavily on his nickel and dime personnel. That should open up more potential playing time for cover guys like Gareon Conley, Eli Apple and Cam Burrows, and safety Vonn Bell could emerge quickly as an option at the star spot.

Recruiting trail: The Buckeyes are right back at it again, having already secured a commitment from ESPN 300 cornerback Damon Webb to add to the depth in the secondary. They aren’t done yet, either, but Webb (Detroit/Cass Technical) currently rates as the crown jewel of the class with a ranking of 84 from the RecruitingNation experts.

Flexibility: Roby is locked in at the premier spot at cornerback, and he’s not going anywhere once he returns from suspension if he stays healthy. Grant had a productive spring and has earned his starting spot, but he’ll face challenges from Reeves and the freshmen to stay there. That’s one spot in the secondary that bears monitoring and could potentially see a change, as there certainly shouldn't be any openings at safety as productive, veteran seniors man both spots.

Notable numbers:

  • A season after leading the nation in passes defended and tying the school record for pass breakups with 17, Roby doesn’t have all that much to prove in what seems likely to be his last season with the Buckeyes before declaring early for the NFL draft. But he did only manage a pair of interceptions a year ago, both coming in the easy victory over Nebraska, and that’s one area of his game where there’s still plenty of room to grow.

  • Perhaps overshadowed by Roby and linebacker Ryan Shazier statistically, Bryant has somewhat quietly put together an impressive all-around resume that shows how valuable he has been to the defense as a whole. Heading into his senior campaign, Bryant ranks second among active Buckeyes in tackles, passes broken up and forced fumbles while bringing a consistent, physical presence to the lineup in 22 starts.

Big question: Is there such a thing as too much reliance on defensive backs?

Since spring, the answer has pretty clearly been a resounding “no” for the Buckeyes. Part of the reason for the heavy workload of the nickel and dime personnel is certainly the lack of depth at linebacker, but the amount of experienced talent returning in the secondary and the expanding influence of spread offenses have combined to make for an easy decision for Ohio State to roll out five or six defensive backs at a time. As long as players such as Powell, Brown or Bell are able to do work against the run and provide the kind of sure-handed tackling normally required of a linebacker, the Buckeyes will keep sending out defensive backs in waves, leaning on the strength of that unit to lead from the back in the push for a national title.