Jeremiah Smith Ohio State Buckeyes Wide Receiver Denzel Burke Caleb Downs

Ohio State Football Notebook: ‘You’ve got to make plays wherever you’re at’

Caleb Downs Ready For Anything

As a true freshman last year, Caleb Downs took the SEC by fire, leading the conference with 70 solo tackles. Only two players in the conference over the previous five years had produced more, and no defensive back had that many solo tackles in the SEC since 2015.

Downs is at a new school now, of course, and also in a new secondary. A year ago he was listed as a strong safety, but now he is a free safety in Ohio State’s defense. Not to worry, however, because even though the two positions have different names, they are in essence the same position.

“It’s the same spot really,” Downs explained on Wednesday. “It’s the field safety, playing out in the most space, that’s what I’m used to. But I feel like I could play to the boundary, I can play the dime position, I can play nickel. So I mean, at the end of the day, you’ve got to make plays wherever you’re at.”

As the Adjuster in OSU’s defense, Downs is the free safety playing the wide side of the field. But he is also getting reps at the Bandit — or boundary/strong safety, as well as the nickel position.

There are several reasons for the cross-training. For one, motion by a receiver from one side of the field to the other can change the responsibilities of all of OSU’s safeties, so they have to be handle different tasks. Another reason is simply to make the safeties a more well-rounded group.

“Every day I take reps at all three spots. It helps you understand and learn the defense from a new perspective,” Caleb Downs explained. “So being able to see the ball from the boundary safety, see the ball from the nickel spot. Being able to see the ball from the dime, it helps you be able to see the whole game and be able to understand everything that goes on around you.”

Blitz Picking Up?

Reporters were on hand for last Saturday’s Student Appreciation Day practice. There were many notable moments from the event, with many standout performances.

One of the more interesting aspects of the practice was the sheer amount of blitzing from the Ohio State defense. Linebackers CJ Hicks, Sonny Styles, and Arvell Reese were blitzing up the middle and on the edges. Defensive backs like Jordan Hancock and Caleb Downs were doing the same.

The Buckeye quarterbacks didn’t have a lot of time to throw the ball, which was pretty much the point. The Ohio State defense may or may not be that aggressive this season, but if they’re going to be, they need to see it in practice first.

“I think it’s something that, when you’re going to be aggressive on defense, a lot of times in spring you’re always trying new stuff out and fine-tuning the stuff that you did the year before,” linebackers coach James Laurinaitis said. “So we have some very talented athletes that can blitz. That’s one of the CJ,’s strong suits. Sonny’s gotten much better at blitzing this spring. And so I think you’ve just got to try to utilize what your guys do well.”

With Styles playing a new position, it also means blitzing from a new position at times. The more that he does it, the better he’ll get. More importantly, the more confident he’ll get.

“I think a lot of it is just confidence,” Laurinaitis said. “Like for Sonny, it’s just telling him don’t think when you’re going. You’ve just got to make something happen. You can’t really think too much about it. When you have that kind of athleticism — him CJ, Arvell — you just gotta go, you know? I think sometimes you try to be so perfect with what the move is. When you just go with speed and let your natural athleticism take over, then you’re deadly.”

Help Is On The Way

Last year was the worst Ohio State running game in over two decades. The Buckeyes rushed for just 138.9 yards per game. It was the low-water mark under head coach Ryan Day by over 40 yards.

Day’s first full season at Ohio State was 2019. The Buckeyes led the Big Ten in rushing (266.8 ypg) by over 33 yards per game. They led the conference again in 2020 (256.9), this time by over 55 yards per game. The following three years, however, the numbers dropped to 180.3 yards per game in 2021, 192.4 yards per game in 2022, and the aforementioned 138.9 yards per game last year.

The Buckeyes still led the B1G in yards per carry in 2021 (5.5) and were second in 2022 (5.4), but last year the average cratered to 4.2 yards per carry.

One of the ways that Day is planning on improving the Ohio State running game this year is by once again making the quarterback part of the equation. The last time OSU had a running threat at quarterback was Justin Fields in 2019 and 2020. The results were not a coincidence.

The Buckeyes have five scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, and while none of them are Fields, all of them are mobile enough to be a threat to run.

This will no doubt make Ohio State fans happy, but there’s another group of people who are even more pleased.

“We feel great about it,” said OSU redshirt sophomore running back Dallan Hayden. “Having a quarterback that can pull it and run and use his legs, it takes pressure off the backs. So, great.”

With CJ Stroud and Kyle McCord at quarterback the past three years, there was virtually no reason for a defense to concern themselves with a quarterback keeping the ball.

The results were not a coincidence there either.

“It’s pretty tough because if you don’t have a quarterback that can run, the defense knows that,” Hayden said. “So they’ll just key in on the back.”

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