Buckeye Cornerbacks About to Go "Off" on Receivers
By Tony Gerdeman
COLUMBUS, Ohio — One of the more consistent aspects of the Ohio State defense over the years has been the stellar play at the cornerback position. In fact, if a cornerback starts at Ohio State, it is a virtual guarantee that they will end up in an NFL camp.
Deemed "Cornerback U" by more than a few folks, it's been a while since solid press coverage has been a stranger to a Buckeye defense. NFL rosters have been littered with Buckeye cornerbacks over the last couple of decades, and almost all of them made their names by first jamming a receiver at the line of scrimmage.
The days of cornerbacks staring receivers in the eyes at the line of scrimmage are about to change, however, because the Buckeyes are now employing more "off man" coverage looks.
Now, instead of a cornerback and receiver being separated by a couple of yards, the Buckeye cornerbacks will line up about seven yards off of the line of scrimmage. The intent is to allow the defenders to keep their eyes on an entire play, and therefore make more plays on the ball.
"It's hard to intercept the ball in press coverage, and hard to get involved really in the rest of the play," said OSU cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs.
"Being off and being able to see and have vision gives you a chance to maybe make some more plays, and I think they're excited about that. I think what we would like to see is that we're going to have more opportunities, which is exciting."
Last year's starting cornerbacks Bradley Roby (3) and Travis Howard (2) combined to intercept five passes last season. The desire is for that number to increase by a good bit in 2012.
Playing press coverage forces a cornerback to turn and run much quicker, thereby missing most of the play while defending the receiver. By keeping their eyes toward the play, they will be able to involve themselves much more.
There are, however, some inherent dangers to this strategy.
"It's not easy to do," Roby said. "People might look it and say that it looks easy, but it's not easy to do, playing off man.
"You have a receiver who is a good athlete running full speed at you, and you're off at seven yards, and he can go anywhere. If you make one misstep, he's going past you or you're out of position. That's the whole thing. You have to learn to trust your technique."
Trusting their technique falls on the shoulders of the players, as well as Coombs to make them comfortable with what is being taught. Fortunately, the reason for switching to off man is something that every cornerback can get behind.
"The ball is the thing," said Coombs. "That's why you're playing, and if you're a defensive back, there's no greater thing in the world than an interception. We want to be aggressive. We want to aggressively seek the ball every play and be relentless in that regard."
That is not to say that the Buckeyes will be abandoning press coverage, because they won't be. The desire is to show several different coverages all from the same look, with off man being their bread and butter.
That bread and butter will allow the Buckeye cornerbacks to read a quarterback's drop, which will also tell them plenty about where their receiver is going. In theory, they will now be able to jump on passes that they never would have even known were being thrown last year.
"That's the whole thing for us playing off," said Howard. "Just so we could get our eyes to different receivers and the quarterback, and be able to challenge more throws instead of giving up easier routes since we're in man and we're not able to see the ball come off as much.
"It just makes us more comfortable. We trust our technique more and we're getting a lot more hands on the ball now because we can see where the ball is going."
Coombs and his cornerbacks are enjoying the results that they have seen this Spring, and it has reaffirmed that the proper decision was made to go to off man.
The ultimate verdict will come down starting in September, but Coombs certainly likes his group's chances.
"They're talented and they're gifted, but more than anything, they're very, very good and diligent workers," Coombs said of his cornerbacks.
"They're in my office poking their head in all the time. They want to know what they can do to get better. They want to know where they fell short, and they don't argue with me about what I'm seeing and how we can improve, and that's a real credit to them. That's what the great ones have."
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