April 19, 2013

Coombs likes depth at corner

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Kerry Coombs is excited -- even more so than usual.

When Ohio State's enthusiastic cornerbacks coach walks into his meeting room, he sees a collection of players that possesses perhaps as much talent as any position group on the Buckeyes' roster. Ohio State ranked sixth in the country in pass defense last November, allowing an average of 140.3 yards per game, but despite All-Big Ten cornerback Travis Howard's eligibility having expired, Coombs believes that his unit was just beginning to scratch the surface of its potential.

A big part of that is the return of Howard's all-conference counterpart, Bradley Roby. The fourth-year junior could have opted to leave Ohio State early for the NFL Draft this offseason, but instead came back to school, where he'll look to repeat a sophomore campaign that saw him average a nation-high 1.73 pass breakups per game.

With little left to prove to the Buckeyes coaching staff, Roby spent the majority of OSU's spring practice sessions standing on the sidelines, something that his position coach saw as a positive for his team.

"(Roby) Lost nothing not being in contact. We gained from it. Those kids came off the field and went to Bradley. I'm still coaching and they went to him," Coombs said. "Bradley doesn't have to prove the physical nature of his game. I've given him specific things this summer he needs to do to be the kind of player he wants to be and the kind of leader we need him to be."

While Roby appears to be one of the few certainties on an OSU defense that returns just four starters from 2012, it was finding a player to fill the void left by Howard in the starting lineup that was Coombs' top priority this spring. Very rarely did either of the Buckeyes' starters come off the field a season ago, but when one of them did, it was Doran Grant who stepped into their spots.

Grant showed flashes -- particularly in the Buckeyes' Sept. 22 win over UAB, where he started for an injured Roby and recorded seven tackles, one sack, one interception, and one fumble recovery -- but was also inconsistent while performing in spot duty throughout the Big Ten season.

According to Coombs, the junior-to-be has been a surer player this spring, and beat out sophomore Armani Reeves for the right to start opposite Roby.

"Doran graded out highest, played very well and continues to do everything we ask and work on his own. I thought he had the biggest leap," Coombs said. "Armani had a great spring and I don't mean to take away, but the expectation and pressure was on Doran and this is a position of pressure. He handled it."

Just because he was passed over for a starting spot this spring, doesn't mean that Reeves won't be counted on come fall. Coombs admitted that 75 snaps per game are too many for his starters to handle, and that he'd like to see a more regular rotation at the position throughout the 2013 season.

Adding to the Buckeyes' depth this spring was a pair of early enrollee freshmen in Eli Apple and Cameron Burrows. Both players saw significant playing time in last Saturday's spring game, and Coombs has been pleased with each of their progress.

"They got a lot of playing time because they're really good players. You come here as a mid-year enrollee and that's our expectations. I met with them throughout their high school seasons to make sure they knew the expectations when they got here," Coombs said. "They performed extremely well. I'm going on the road recruiting tonight and I'm going to see kids still in high school who haven't had the experience they've had. There's no way they can be as far along."

Coombs is also confident that more depth at his position will be added this fall. The Buckeyes are still awaiting the arrival of three-star prospect Gareon Conley, who could find himself playing either cornerback or wide receiver in his college career.

"I'm excited about him. He's going to be raw and he's going to need to be coached but that's what we're here for," Coombs said of Conley. "He has great ball skills and can play either side of the ball. We're fortunate to have him on defense. I hope I keep him at corner."

Despite Coombs' optimism about his position, he knows that his group's growth is far from finished. While the OSU coaching staff is confident that it'll be able to replace what it lost in Howard from a physical standpoint, there are other intangibles that Coombs would like to see surface before the start of August's fall camp.

"We have seen things from great kids who aren't finished products," Coombs said. "I don't think we have great leaders yet. That's why we have the next 12 weeks to develop some of that stuff in these kids."


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