Safety Christian Bryant doesn’t mince words.
He’s straight to the point, just like when he makes a tackle — head first, shoulders square, legs churning, leaving a calling card for a wincing ball-carrier.
“I’m chasing a national championship,” he said. “That’s what I’m chasing.”
If Ohio State is to pursue such a lofty goal — and the Buckeyes are coming off a glittering 12-0 season — then Bryant and a veteran secondary will likely be the ringleaders, so to speak.
Ohio State may have big question marks on defense, but none of them come at the back end. Bryant, cornerback Bradley Roby and safety C.J. Barnett comprise three of the four seniors on that side of the ball. No wonder the backfield figures to be a load-bearing wall for the rest of the unit.
“That’s going to be our backbone this year — me, Christian, C.J., Corey Brown,” said Roby, who flirted with jumping into the NFL draft in January. “We’ve been here for a long time. We know how things are going to go, how things should go. We just have to lead these young guys.”
Barnett and Bryant are back to fill the safety spots. Doran Grant will get a long look at the other starting cornerback spot.
Filling in behind them are Brown and several youngsters, including two kids who are participating in spring workouts while other classmates are going to prom and planning graduation parties — corners Eli Apple and Cam Burrows.
“I really like ‘em. I think they’re playing at a reasonably high level for spring football,” cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said of his charges in his typical, raspy, half-yell. “The young guys are getting a lot of reps. We’ve got good leadership from Bradley Roby. And we’re competing every day. I really like the work ethic. They’re very diligent and very serious about their business. And they’re going to be very, very good as time develops.”
Building a defense isn’t unlike an assembly line. It starts with recruiting cornerbacks and everything else takes shape from there.
“You go out and find big corners who can run, athletic guys,” said co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Everett Withers. “I mean 6-foot, 6-1, athletic, long-armed corners who can grow into safeties, who are physical and have a toughness about them.”
After winnowing through the fastest guys and putting them out on an island at cornerback — where the slightest mistake in one-on-one coverage results in a huge gain or six points — the chain continues.
“You always want to find guys in positions who can have another place to fall,” Withers said. “A corner that can move to safety. A safety that can move to linebacker. A linebacker who can move to defensive end, a defensive end who can move to defensive tackle. If you find those guys in recruiting, then usually they have a place to play.”
The Buckeyes have defensive backs who can play, that’s for sure. But that doesn’t mean things are set in stone.
Coach Urban Meyer likes Brown, a Pittsburgh native (unlike the other Corey Brown on the squad, who’s from Philadelphia and plays offense) who has never really developed into a top player. Now he’s a fifth-year senior and is down to his last chance.
“I’m hoping he’s our Reid Fragel,” Meyer said, referring to a backup tight end who was switched to offensive tackle last spring and blossomed into an All-Big Ten performer. “I’m hoping (Brown) steps up. He has to; he hasn’t done a whole lot around here. He’s a nice kid with some talent. He didn’t look very good (last year). Now he’s got some confidence. We like the way he’s practicing right now. You know, it’s time.”
Brown really wants to make something of the opportunity.
“I want to do everything I can possibly do — turn my lifestyle around, my body around,” he said. “Everything.”
There are times when Roby, who most likely would have been taken in the top few rounds of the draft, thinks about where he might have been instead of sweating it out for the fourth spring at Ohio State. He could have signed a big contract, but he’s fine with delaying that a while.
“Everybody struggles in college but at the end of the day I have a vision for the future and I see what’s coming to me in the future,” he said. “So I’ll be broke for a little bit longer, it’s OK.”
Roby and his two fellow holdovers in the backfield are happy to offer guidance to their younger and less experienced teammates.
“Like coach Meyer said to us one day, he said, ‘Leadership will take us to the top,”’ Bryant said. “That’s the type of role I’m trying to play this season to enhance our team. We all are.”