COLUMBUS — Safeties are the players farthest removed from the action.
Yet they’ll be in the middle of Ohio State’s hopes this fall.
Starters Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett account for 50 percent of the seniors on the defensive side for the Buckeyes. They’ve been through a lot, with three coaches in their college careers, weathering a dreary 6-7 record two years ago and playing important roles in the 12-0 bounce-back season of 2012.
With most of the defensive front seven gone, they’re being asked to not only be major contributors on the field but also to be instructors for all of the younger guys stepping into starting roles for the first time.
“It’s on our shoulders,” Barnett said. “Me and Christian, being seniors ... it’s a duty for us. We’ve got to stand up to the challenge. Everybody is going to be looking to us.”
For a young defense, the two wizened veterans in the secondary are key.
“I like the leadership in the back end of our defense, that’s Christian Bryant, that’s C.J. Barnett,” coach Urban Meyer said. “I’m real pleased with that.”
A quick look at last year’s stats underscores their importance.
They are among the top four returning tacklers from a year ago. Bryant was second (to returning linebacker Ryan Shazier) with 70 tackles, including one interception, a fumble recovery and 12 passes broken up.
Barnett was fourth in stops with 56, including 2½ for losses, and also had two interceptions and six breakups. Corey “Pittsburgh” Brown also returns as a backup for the Killer B’s at safety.
“I think it’s important that those guys who have played a lot of snaps here — Christian Bryant, C.J. Barnett, Corey Brown — those guys have been around this program a long time and have a lot invested in it,” said co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Everett Withers. “It’s really important that they show leadership, not just in the defense room but throughout our football team. That they help us with our young guys.
“The Ohio State way — they know it.”
Cornerback Bradley Roby, who was third in tackles with 63, is currently working out with the second team as part of his punishment for a summer skirmish with a Bloomington, Ind., bar bouncer. Roby may face additional sanctions, pending the outcome of his legal case.
Roby’s situation adds to the problems for the defense, which may have the top four tacklers from last season but is missing the next eight on the list.
Asked if the safeties must set the tone for the unit, Bryant doesn’t mince words.
“I would say so right now, just because of the experience and the leadership that we have coming back in the secondary,” he said. “All of the older guys in the secondary are trying to do a good job of leading the young guys in the right direction, showing them the way. Because, like (running backs) coach (Stan) Drayton always says, ‘They have no idea what they’re getting themselves into right now.’”
How well Bryant and Barnett do may well determine just how good Ohio State is.
A year ago, Ohio State was seen as a relatively talented team, but one that was coming off a losing season. There were a lot of question marks with a new regime coming in.
But a strong core of seniors helped turn the tide, transforming a team with a lot of concerns to one with no losses.
“It’s important that their leadership comes out,” Withers said of Bryant and Barnett. “We had great leadership last year and you saw where it got us.”
Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/RustyMillerAP.