COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Angry with the way his defense played in its last three games, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is urging his players to attack more and think less.
“It’s a fast-paced game (with coaches dealing with getting players) lined up as opposed to it used to be a game based on effort,” Meyer said. “And I want to get back to that.”
The Buckeyes held their second practice of the spring Thursday, and as will be the case throughout the 15 workouts the emphasis is on relying on instinct and playing without restraint instead of following the diagrammed play and reacting.
Ohio State surrendered an average of more than 38 points and 539 yards a game while closing out 1-2 in the most important games of 2013. With seven starters back from that unit, Meyer is demanding that, first and foremost, everyone play hard and fast.
The defense had a collapse of epic proportions near the end of a program-record 24-game winning streak, all under Meyer in his first two years on the job. The Buckeyes were in the hunt for a spot in the national championship game until, suddenly, they couldn’t stop anybody.
His coaches have been put on notice that things will be different.
“It was a combination of things,” co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said about the problems. “When things start to go and you lose confidence in what you’re doing, it’s tough. As coaches you don’t do a great job, either. You try to put a finger in all the different holes that you’ve got and … you start trying to stop everything and you don’t stop anything.”
They beat archrival Michigan 42-41 on the road to get to 12-0 late last November, but then suffered a 34-24 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and a 40-35 setback to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
It wasn’t just big plays that killed Ohio State — and there were plenty of those. Opponents averaged 26 first downs in those three games, so they also sustained drives.
The Buckeyes allowed 161 yards rushing per game, but absolutely gushed yardage when the other teams passed. Michigan completed 32 of 47 passes for 451 yards without an interception. The Spartans were 24 of 40 for 304 yards with one pick. And then Clemson completed 31 of 40 for 378 with two interceptions.
Linebacker Curtis Grant said things had been simplified so far this spring.
“Just play fast and have fun out here,” he said was the defensive mantra.
Meyer’s biggest concern is the linebackers, who didn’t necessarily have a good year — and that was with an All-American in Ryan Shazier. Now Shazier is gone, leaving early for the NFL draft, and Grant and Joshua Perry are the returning starters. They’ll be pressed for playing time by many others.
“He’s concerned, but we’re going to take that as a challenge to stick together,” Grant said. “We’ll work on the stuff that we need to work on to get better.”
Almost all of the line is back, led by Michael Bennett, Adolphus Washington, Joey Bosa and Noah Spence. The secondary is missing starting corner Bradley Roby, who also left early for the draft, along with safeties C.J. Barnett, Corey Brown and Christian Bryant.
Two new defensive assistants are on staff. Larry Johnson, late of Penn State, is now the assistant head coach/defensive line. He took the place of former Buckeyes player Mike Vrabel after he jumped to the NFL to take a job with the Houston Texans.
Chris Ash, also familiar with the Big Ten from his years at Wisconsin, took over as co-defensive coordinator/safeties and is the nominal replacement for Everett Withers, who became the head coach at James Madison.
There are options, particularly at linebacker.
Raekwon McMillan, one of the nation’s top recruits, figures to get a look right away. So will fellow incoming freshmen Kyle Berger, Dante Booker and Sam Hubbard.
If the defensive players feel everyone’s eyes on them, it doesn’t seem to bother them. At least not at this early date.
“I think it’s fun. It helps us get better,” said linebacker Camren Williams. “If nobody was looking at us and everybody was just expecting us to do what we do and nobody had high expectations for us, I don’t think we’d grind as hard or focus as hard or do everything with so much effort.”
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