After allowing more than 245 passing yards per game last season and finishing 86th in the Football Subdivision in total passing yards allowed, the Ohio State secondary is hard at work to restore the elite standard of defensive back play the program has come to expect.
Jeff Hafley was hired to Ryan Day’s staff in January to serve as the co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach after spending the past seven seasons coaching secondaries in the NFL. With plenty of talent to go along with Hafley’s experience, expectations are high for the unit to return to self-proclaimed “Best in America” status.
“They’re working hard. I think they’ve had a good camp,” Hafley said Tuesday. “They’re learning the scheme. I think they are gaining confidence, which, to me, is the most important thing. I want those guys to play confident, I want them to have fun. Because on game day, we have to go play. I think they are getting close. The confidence is definitely growing.”
In previous years, Ohio State corners have played predominantly in press-man coverage. That one-on-one philosophy, meant to challenge every throw, produced high-level results at times but has been exposed, for various reasons, over the past two seasons.
While press coverage will still have its place in how the Ohio State secondary deploys this season, Hafley said in the spring he will also mix in zone coverage to change the looks quarterbacks will see.
Junior cornerback Jeff Okudah said the benefits of switching between zone and press coverage are two-fold in that it prevents fatigue from constantly running with receivers and allows defensive backs to read the quarterbacks and make plays on the ball.
Okudah figures to play a major factor in the overall play of the secondary this season. After coming on strong toward the end of last season, particularly in their Rose Bowl win over Washington, Okudah is already beginning to pop up on 2020 NFL Draft projections as a first-round pick.
Now an unquestioned starter at corner alongside returning senior Damon Arnette, Okudah will have the opportunity to showcase his combination of length and speed NFL scouts covet at the position. But aside from his physical talents, Hafley said it is Okudah’s willingness to put in the work that shows up the most.
“I think it’s his work ethic,” Hafley said when asked what gives Okudah the potential to be special. “I think you know he’s an exceptional athlete. He has size, length and speed. He has great feet, and he loves football. And he practices hard every day. What separates him from other people is his mindset, and that’s what the great ones have. And that’s what he does, he works.”
Okudah said his early goals during his first two years in the program were to improve physically and in his technique. Now entering his third year, he said Hafley has helped him to grow the mental aspect of his game.
Much emphasis has been placed on creating more turnovers in the secondary after the Buckeyes intercepted only 11 passes last season, tied for 41st in the bowl subdivision, despite being in the top 20 in total takeaways. The results have been there throughout camp, and Hafley credited that to his guys playing with good technique and being confident in what they are doing.
“They’re finishing, and they are finishing violent,” Hafley said. “And they’re not afraid to go try to make a play. That’s what practice is for … it’s fun to see them doing that. And if they make a mistake, we’ll fix it. But I want them to be fearless, and I want that to be their mindset. When you do that, hopefully, good things will happen.”
He added turnovers are often a product of the entire defense, whether from pressure along the defensive front, linebackers stepping into throwing windows, or passes being tipped.
Okudah said the mix of zone coverage that allows guys to read plays has had a lot to do with the number of turnovers they are forcing in practice, as did Arnette.
“It allows you to play with eyes on the quarterback. You can make a lot more plays like that, looking at the ball,” Arnette said, adding he enjoys playing in space because it makes the defense less predictable.
Hafley has been hesitant to define roles or positions for certain players, instead saying offensive personnel will largely determine who plays where. With the creation of the hybrid safety and linebacker “bullet” position adding to the defense’s ability to be present many different packages, Hafley said some guys could be lining up in a lot of different areas within the secondary.
“It’s who are we playing? Who do they have (in terms of offensive personnel), what’s our best matchup? Let’s put our guys in the best position to win with those matchups, and then let’s go play. And then we have guys that can rotate in. We have talent.”
Hafley was asked in particular about Shaun Wade, who has played safety, slot corner, and as the nickleback. Hafley said he expects Wade to play at both inside and out at the corner position, praising his versatility.
“Shaun’s a really smart football player, and he’s really instinctive,” Hafley said. “So, when he plays inside, he sees things well. So, he’s good against the run, he’s good against the pass. And things move faster (inside), and he can react quickly — mentally and physically — which is awesome … I also think he has the size, length, and speed to play on the outside, too.”
As for who might start next to Jordan Fuller at safety against Florida Atlantic, Hafley said, “Ask me that next week.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.