In 2019, when Ryan Day hired Greg Mattison and Al Washington from Michigan to help fix the defense, the talk of the offseason for Ohio State was the “Bullet” position, a hybrid linebacker/safety that would both be able to play near the line of scrimmage but also drop back into coverage. In an ideal world, this player wouldn’t need to come off the field often because of his versatility.
While in concept, this role wasn’t new — the Buckeyes have used a hybrid-like player before, as recently as Darron Lee on the 2014 national championship team, and other teams, using various names, have deployed a similar player in the past — it was expected to change the defense for the better.
Three years on, the Scarlet and Gray haven’t used a true Bullet linebacker in a game. Despite coaches talking about it and recruiting for it, Ohio State continued to have three, and sometimes four, true linebackers on the field as the team’s base defense.
Some reasoning for that had to do with the versatility of Pete Werner and Baron Browning, the two Sam linebackers the last two seasons, but it begged the question: would Buckeye fans ever actually see this Bullet position?
The answer came in the 2021 spring game. When the rosters for the scrimmage were released a day prior, linebacker Craig Young and safety Ronnie Hickman were each listed as “Bullet.” In the scrimmage, Young and Hickman each played more than 50 snaps at the position after starting for either team.
“I think what we want to do is get our best 11 guys on the field,” Scarlet and Gray defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said after the spring game. “And I think that you have to evaluate who’s healthy, who’s able and capable to play. I think what spring allowed us to do was just continue to develop options along those lines.”
Young finished the spring game with two total tackles and a pass defended. This came after the former three-star athlete and Fort Wayne, Indiana native spent his first two seasons at Ohio State as a linebacker, recording nine total tackles, largely on special teams. This spring, however, he repped with the safeties in practice, an indication of what is to come.
Hickman managed eight total tackles — six for Team Brutus and two for Team Buckeye — in the spring game. A four-star safety from Wayne, New Jersey, Hickman missed his freshman year due to injury and served in a backup role at safety last season. Like Young, he spent the spring adjusting to an altered role with more of a linebacker feel.
As two of the best athletes on the defense, Young and Hickman, along with the recovering Kourt Williams, who missed his freshman season with a knee injury, make a lot of sense for a position that has to handle both linebacker and safety responsibilities. Young and Hickman were given a bigger opportunity to showcase what they could do at the Bullet this spring due to injuries to other linebackers.
“It was unfortunate that we had some injuries at linebacker, but it gave the opportunity to put some different kids in some different spots, which I think lends itself to depth in the fall,” Coombs said. “So not ideal all the time, some guys playing in the box that haven’t played there before, but I think that doesn’t do anything but serve us well going forward.”
While the spring game was a good look at what the Bullet position would be like for the Buckeyes, the coaching staff isn’t ready to commit to playing with a Bullet on the field at all times. Instead, Coombs explained that the Scarlet and Gray defense will be based on the offense they face.
“I think you have to make decisions based on the game plan of how you’re going to attack the offense based on how they’re going to attack you,” the defensive coordinator explained. “And so, if you’re playing in the spread game and you’ve got teams that are going to spread the field, throw the ball around a lot, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got a plan to handle that. If you’re going to play the teams that are going to pack it in and play with two tight ends and run the ball and those kinds of things, you’ve got to have a plan for that.
“What the Bullet, what that position affords you the opportunity to do is to try to play both sets of personnel that the offense has to offer without necessarily having to change your personnel on first and second down.”
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Ohio State’s defense must be improved next fall from a group that struggled in 2020. The coaching staff knows this and has already seen steps being taken just by having a more traditional offseason this year. But the Buckeyes also have to make adjustments and find a way, as Coombs said, to get the best 11 players on the field for the given game plan.
This spring, the best 11 players defensively often included Young or Hickman at Bullet. And although some of that had to do with the availability of other linebackers, these two took strides that may make them the best options when everyone is healthy in the fall.
“Their opportunities were great, they handled them well and I’m looking forward to watching them play in the fall,” Coombs said of the two hybrid players. “I love the way those guys competed this spring, Craig and Ronnie, and I’m excited for their fall. I think it’s going to be a piece of what we do, absolutely.”