Ohio’s Young, Progressing Secondary Faces Tough Test in Akron

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Heading into this season, Ohio’s strength was its experience in the secondary, but what a difference a few games make. Now, the Bobcats sport one of the youngest secondaries in the MAC.

Travis Carrie’s season ending shoulder injury presented a case of Déjà vu for Ohio head coach Frank Solich. 
It was a mere season ago when Larenzo Fisher, Jamil Shaw, Josh Kristoff and Octavius Leftwich all contributed off the bench when the secondary starters went down with injuries. Injuries have been an issue for Solich, especially in the past two years. 
With the experience they gained last season, sophomores Kristoff and Fisher are now considered the veterans in the secondary, especially since injuries have also removed Shaw and Leftwich from the field this season.
The ability of the younger players to step up has contributed greatly to the team’s undefeated season. Heading into homecoming weekend against Akron, the Bobcats are one of only three teams in the NCAA that are now bowl eligible.
“When we call (the younger players) in to make plays, they do it. They've stepped up huge,” Kristoff said. “We've got a lot of injuries, but when guys need to step up, they've been making plays and it's been working so far, so hopefully we just keep it going.”
Every coach, well aware of the situation last season, warned the reserves before the season to not get comfortable on the sidelines.
“All the coaches here pretty much told us you got to have that next man mentality. If the man goes down, you've got to know your assignments,” redshirt freshman Ian Wells said. “You've got to be ready to step up.”
In six games, Fisher and Wells each have one forced fumble. Fisher has 24 total tackles and five pass breakups, while Wells has 19 and four, respectively. They have had some great games, including the recent home game against Buffalo when they only allowed 188 passing yards on 19 of 36 attempts.
As with most young players, mistakes are expected.
Against Massachusetts, the defense struggled, allowing 373 passing yards and four touchdowns against the 10th ranked passing offense in the MAC. For a young secondary, a lack of focus was noticeable.
“I don't think going into Massachusetts, we were as focused as we've usually been,” Wells said. “The following week, we made sure no missed assignments and stuff like that.”
It’s constantly an up-and-down season for a young corner. Carrie and Shaw have been there the entire time, offering their advice from when they were the new guys.
“T.J., he's been a tremendous help. He always is using his expansions and teaching it to us like we have a better feel how it was his sophomore year, how it was for him,” Fisher said. “As sophomores, we're like, 'We're young,' and stuff like that, and he comes up to us and is like, 'Well, I was young once, too. This is what happened to me. This and that.' And it just helps us out, makes us feel a lot better on the field.”
This weekend, the Bobcats take the field against another pass-happy offense.
Akron’s scheme relies on the arm of Dalton Williams. The six-foot-four quarterback is ranked fourth nationally with 1,907 passing yards and fifth with 15 touchdowns. The senior is also 10th in the nation with seven interceptions.
“He's got a good arm, and they pretty much pass every down, so of course he'll have a bunch of yards,” Wells said. “We have to play our assignments. Don't try to do someone else's job. They like to go short-short-short and then they'll try to go deep one time, so we just got to stay focused every play.”
As the season progresses, the secondary continues to grow as a group. When injuries struck the team, it took awhile to adjust to the new system of players on the field, but the veterans who were there from the beginning are building a camaraderie with the young guys.
“We're maturing as a defense. As the season has gone on, we're learning about our strengths and our weaknesses, so we're going to play to our strengths,” Kristoff said. “Hopefully, we keep (Akron) off-balanced with whether or not we're going to blitz, playing zone, or whether we're playing man.”
Kristoff summed up the state of the secondary well, “We're starting to figure out what our strengths are, and we're going to play to that."