Once upon a time (i.e. two years ago), new Ohio State head coach Ryan Day brought a different style of defense to the Buckeyes. Defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley was hired from the NFL and installed a single-high safety defense and Day hired Michigan assistants Greg Mattison and Al Washington because they were familiar with utilizing a hybrid linebacker in their base defense.
At Michigan, that hybrid position is known as the Viper and had at one time been manned by Jabrill Peppers. At Ohio State, the position is known as the Bullet. For months before the 2019 season, the Bullet was all the rage in Buckeye circles. Safety Brendon White was perfect for the role and looked forward to playing it. Part-time linebacker, part-time safety, full-time playmaker. What’s not to love?
The storybook ending didn’t happen for White, who eventually saw all of the hybrid responsibilities stay with starting Sam linebacker Pete Werner. It was Werner who would flex out to the slot. It was Werner who would sometimes rotate back to a deep safety position. It was Werner who could hold up at the line of scrimmage on running downs. Basically, there was no need to substitute a hybrid defender into the game because Werner was able to do everything Hafley and Mattison needed.
Then last year Werner moved to Will and seniors Baron Browning and Justin Hilliard manned the wheel at Sam. Browning wasn’t the cover guy like Werner, but he had his own specialties that fit what the Buckeyes did on defense.
The Bullet became an afterthought last year, at least among the talking heads. But that may be changing this year according to Day.
“No, no, it’s still there,” he said of the Bullet this spring. “Really what it is, it’s just a hybrid. And really last year it was hard to take those linebackers off the field. We had Baron Browning, Justin Hilliard, Tuf [Borland], and Pete and we felt that was a strength of our defense, those guys. And boy, they made a lot of plays. But as we head into this offseason, again looking at our personnel and who we have, and then some of the offenses we’re going to face and how we’re going to adapt, we’re going to continue to talk about and figure out how the Bullet plays into this season.”
The most prominent name being mentioned as filling that role this spring is redshirt sophomore Craig Young. Young was a backup at Sam last year and had two talented seniors in front of him. Prior to that, he had also spent time on the scout team at safety.
When it comes to versatility, few Buckeyes can match Young’s bona fides. As a senior in high school he caught 35 passes for 700 yards. As a junior he had three interceptions at linebacker. He averaged 17.4 points and 7.5 rebounds per game on the basketball court as a junior, and also won the sectional track meet that same year with a very fast 10.7 100-meter dash and 22.43 200-meter dash as a 6-foot-3, 200-pounder.
Now listed at 223 pounds, Young is leaner this year than he was a year ago, likely to help him stay quick and fast enough for the safety duties he is in line to handle. The Bullet and the Sam are interchangeable, but what the coaches ask them to do depends on their individual capabilities.
“If you think about our defense a year ago or two years ago, think about that [Sam]. A guy, first year was Pete Werner,” Washington said. “So Pete was a guy that had coverage skill and was able to really impact the defense in that way. Then you got Baron, who’s really dynamic rushing the passer. So that position is whatever skill set that guy has, you play to that. So that’s one that you kind of mold around the player, and so as things go this spring we’ll have a better idea of that.”
With a full offseason under their belts, the Ohio State defense will have more options than they did a year ago. With a guy as versatile as Craig Young, he could give the Buckeyes a number of different looks just by himself.
“I think that Craig has had a really good spring so far,” Day said. “I think he’s finding a role that he feels more comfortable with, his ability to come into the box, but then also line up at safety. He can do multiple things there. And that’s exciting for us because he can cover, he can play in the box, he can be physical, he can blitz. So he and Ronnie Hickman, Ryan Batsch, Kourt Williams, those are all guys in that position that we think have a chance to do that this year.”