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Thursday Morning Brews (8/7/14)

Peering into the Buckeye's defense, and another edition of the preseason watch list countdown.

Loucheiz Purifoy vs. Shaq Roland, 2013
Loucheiz Purifoy vs. Shaq Roland, 2013
Streeter Lecka

Chris Ash's Way

The Buckeyes' defense has allowed 20 points per game for the third straight year, after only doing so five times in its history from 1890-2010. Meyer tabbed Chris Ash as his architect, and the job was a simple one: fix the passing game. More than 71% of the yards the Buckeyes allowed last year came through the air, thanks to the 110th-best passing defense that mismanaged its athleticism. Two key components, Bradley Roby and C.J. Barnett, are out of the equation, along with Ryan Shazier, who was an athletic defender in coverage.

Ash is countering this by converting the Buckeyes defense into a permanent nickel formation. The strongside backer, likely Darron Lee (6'2", 230) or Chris Worley (6'2", 218), is labelled a "walkout linebacker" in his system, and it's meant to be a little smaller, faster and better in coverage against tight ends... essentially, someone who has the skill set of a strong safety, with a few extra pounds. With the use of increasingly mobile tight ends, coverage ability is growing more important to protect a defense's integrity, and speed is certainly not a drawback on blitz packages. It leaves the Buckeyes a little more vulnerable to ground-and-pound games (just like their use of lighter, athletic linemen), but it's a price they feel is worth paying.

Of course, any scheme will fall apart if the players aren't able to execute it. An advantage of playing permanently in a nickel look is that defenders have less to master, and get more reps at what they do. As offenses have gotten more complex, defenses have innovated by trying to find ways to forcibly keep it simple, and it's part of a larger theme in Columbus of simplifying everything so as to rely on athletes winning one-on-one matchups and trusting them to make plays with their instincts. In some way, Ash's approach is a bend-don't-break philosophy built on press coverage and plenty of athletes roaming the field, that won't presume to try to stop everything with its schemes and will allow the simple runs.

As always, though, it will start up front. The defensive line is star-studded and the linebacking corps is similarly built - with impressive athletes and former five-stars. Joshua Perry, the leading returning player, has shifted into the WILL and will take over for Shazier. In the middle, a former five-star player in Curtis Grant - who never lived up to his billing - will compete for a spot with a five-star freshman, Raekwon McMillan. The competition has motivated Grant, but either one will work as an athletic presence in the middle and a 240-pound run-stuffer at the same time. Perry, meanwhile, weighs in at even more - at 253 lbs., he weighs more than weakside end Noah Spence and 25 lbs. more than Shazier did. The Buckeyes will clearly try to stop the running game with as few as possible, then throw numbers at the pass game and catch fire with their line and the secondary. It could be effective - for all their breakdowns, they ranked 30th a year ago in interceptions, and they're fitting the defense to drop as many into coverage as possible.

Whatever else you might say about the Buckeyes, big plays are their specialty, and they're hoping for some more momentum changers in 2014.

Handing Out Blankets

While the SEC features a deep corps of running backs that trumps the other conferences, they complement their Big Ten-style with plenty other capabilities. Some of the best defensive backs in the country are centered in the Southeastern Conference... although not, exactly, as much as one would expect.

Preseason Watch List (Defensive Backs)
Conf. School Pos. Class Tackles INT + PD
CB P.J. Williams Jr.
CB Ronald Darby Jr.
S Jalen Ramsey
S Tyler Hunter
CB Kendall Fuller
48.0 17
S Kurtis Drummond
70.0 10
CB Eric Murray
48.0 10
Pac-12 ORE
CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu
69.0 9
S Su'a Cravens
46.0 5
CB Marcus Peters
S Jordan Richards
54.0 6
CB Vernon Hargreaves III
So. 38.0 14
S Landon Collins Jr.
67.0 8
S Cody Prewitt
60.5 13
Indep. ND
CB KeiVarae Russell Jr. 45.5 9

Florida State safety Tyler Hunter, who was injured after three games last year, was very productive in that time and started at nickel the year before. Ramsey, a true freshman, switched from corner to safety to make up for it. I also had to exclude Virginia's Anthony Harris, who led FBS with 8 interceptions and had five straight games with one.

The Big Ten, which has specialized in running the ball and stopping the run, is doing the right things to add some dimensions to their game. While there are solid players in the mix, there's also some work to be done. In the meantime MSU is the clear class of the conference. Look out for Murray, though - he held Allen Robinson to 63 yards, Jeremy Gallon to 39, and Cody Latimer to 55.

After watching Justin Gilbert, Jason Verrett, and Aaron Colvin depart in the first four rounds of the NFL Draft, the Big 12 will be looking at Quandre Diggs (Texas) and Sam Carter (TCU) to prove me wrong for excluding the conference. Both the Big Ten and the Big 12 are a few steps behind the rest of the field, however. The Pac-12 looks pretty strong on the whole - either of Stanford's cornerbacks, senior Wayne Lyons or junior Alex Carter, could have also made the list, and Peters is a hidden star. USC, of course, is full of athleticism, with no fewer than 7 five-star or high-four-star players in the secondary. UCLA has two brilliant safeties in Jefferson and Goforth.

Either the Pac-12 or the ACC could be better than the SEC, but there's still a considerable amount of talent in that conference. I have a feeling Jalen Mills, more than anyone else on LSU's roster, will be making headlines this season (for good reasons - he was suspended in the off-season). Also, both Mississippi programs feature terrific secondaries (from Bill Connelly's previews: "This secondary is loaded," of Mississippi State; "this was an excellent secondary, and there's no reason it won't get even better" of Ole Miss). Texas A&M has a great, versatile player in Deshazor Everett, and Cody Prewitt can do stuff like this. There's a lot of talent here. It will be up to the Big Ten to match it.

Hitting the Links Waits Patiently to Prove Itself

Joshua Perry talks changes in the linebacking corps

I'm sure he's no Shazier, but Perry will be a very good linebacker this year, and one of the team's leaders.

SB Nation's Auburn Preview

Clarification: Nick Marshall won't start the Arkansas game.

Inside Kansas State's Success

Snyder has 9 10-win seasons at K-State over 22 seasons.

Gophers out to prove themselves

A quiet but important loss this off-season was Caleb Bak, an offensive lineman. Mitch Leidner is a fun runner to watch, but his arm is extremely weak. The Gophers seem like the Ducks' opposite, in fact. They will try to see just how conservative a team can go, with rushing galore and little passing - and even that's to big receivers and tight ends. They're a throwback team, and unapologetic about it.

Nebraska looks around at its B1G West rivals

This was a surprisingly absorbing look at Nebraska's departure from the Big 12 and where they stand now.

Braxton Miller still without a B1G championship

This piece from E.W. highlights the fact that Miller has lacked a signature moment on the big stage.

B5Q Previews its Receivers | Defensive LineLinebackers

The 91-yard kickoff return is a good highlight by Doe.

Michigan State's 'No Fly Zone' not going anywhere

Yeah, probably not. Programs developing a reputation for something is always great for recruiting (see: Kaleel Gaines), and MSU will try to take the title of DB U away from Les Miles. Meanwhile, Michigan's receivers get to cut their teeth on some great competition.

Coaches on the Hot Seat

I'm not sure I agree with any of the 'Red Star' designations, but a very good list.

Inside NU ranks the running game

Hmmm, ahead of Iowa, Ohio State, Minnesota, Indiana and Penn State? Well, they do have two very good backs in Mark (1371/6.1 in 2012) and Treyvon Green (736/5.3), so perhaps they're totally right.

Every Big Ten School's Best Individual Seasons

This piece looks at each Big Ten school and highlights the best season a player from that school has ever had.

Strong is molding Texas' roster

He's dismissed several players for various problems in the off-season.

Royce Freeman Stepping Up for Oregon

The Ducks have question marks at receiver, but the running game will be very healthy in the fall.

Michigan State nabs in-state Tyriq Thompson

His father, Clarence, was an All-Big Ten player for us in 1995. Dantonio really loves players whose parents played in college.

Kirby Smart talks Tide defense

The Tide will be extremely interesting to watch this season. They throw a lot of size at the run game, but their depth shows that they're going in a different direction. They also had the sixth-best passing defense a year ago, despite all the concerns in their secondary.

The Oregon of the SEC

One last article highlighting Texas A&M's off-season renovations.

A 34-year old secondary coach settles in at USC

Keith Heyward comes from Washington and will be molding one of the most athletic secondaries in the country, with some players Michigan tried to get - Su'a Cravens, Leon McQuay III, Adoree Jackson, and JuJu Smith. Justin Wilcox takes over at DC, and he could be one of the more savvy off-season hires.

Shonn Greene vs. Bengals

Greene is a famous Iowa alum.

Screen pass completely fools Illinois' linebackers, secondary

Akeem Hunt with the score.

Acrobatic interception on Mettenberger

This was a lot of fun to watch.