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Brendon White could be the key to fixing Ohio State’s defense

With a year under his belt, Brendon White is ready to lead the Buckeye defense

Graphic via Patrick Mayhorn
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Brendon White came out of nowhere. After replacing Jordan Fuller a possession earlier following Fuller’s ejection for targeting against Nebraska, it only took Brendon White a few plays to make his first tackle, in which he literally came, seemingly out of nowhere, to wrap Adrian Martinez up for a big loss on a quarterback keeper. White would make two more tackles on the drive, and while it still ended with a Cornhusker score, White had done his part, and in doing his part, he had arrived as a permanent starter on the much maligned Buckeye defense.

While he literally came out of nowhere on that specific tackle, he came out of nowhere in a more metaphorical sense as well, in that his rise from backup to starter came almost entirely by accident, and much to the surprise of just about everyone. White, to that point, had served almost exclusively as a special teams and reserve player. He was listed on the depth chart a backup, behind Jordan Fuller, and next to an “or” with Amir Reip.

That’s what made his arrival so surprising, and honestly, so unlikely. See, Fuller wasn’t the only safety Ohio State was missing that week. Isaiah Pryor was also out, with an injury, and in his place was cornerback Shaun Wade. Had it not been for that injury, Wade, not White, would’ve likely replaced the ejected Fuller, and for all we know, Brendon White would’ve never seen the field in 2018, as Ohio State would’ve either continued with Fuller and Pryor, or perhaps made a move to start Wade over Pryor.

That’s right. One of the best players on Ohio State’s defense for the last month of the season, a player that was very obviously more comfortable than Isaiah Pryor, was an injury and an ejection away from just... never seeing the field.

Brendon White’s breakthrough wasn’t orchestrated by Ohio State’s “brilliant” staff, it wasn’t a sudden stroke of genius from Greg Schiano, it was an accident. An afterthought. A stopgap, that Ohio State just had to hope wouldn’t lead to a second-straight devastating loss to a bad team.

As we now know, White was far from that. He’s an inexperienced player, sure, a player that made mistakes and will continue to make mistakes, a bit of an all-or-nothing risk-taker, but above all that, Brendon White proved in 2018 that he’s no afterthought. He’s no stopgap. He’s an Ohio State caliber player, and he may be the key for Ohio State to move their defense out of a rut and into a much more modern look.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of how exactly Ohio State could —and should — use Brendon White, I should stop and define a specific football position. The position in question is the nickelback, or in the vernacular of new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, the “viper” position. Well, the viper is actually more of a Don Brown thing, but Mattison will almost certainly bring it to Columbus because of how well it works in a modern defense.

Anyway, the viper, nickelback, hybrid, rover, or whatever you want to call it can be defined in quite a few ways, because football is a complicated language with definitions that vary pretty wildly depending on who you talk to. For the purposes of this article, and in the way it could be used with regards to White, think of the viper as, essentially, a combination linebacker/safety, used to rush the quarterback, set contain, and play coverage, usually in a zone.

The best example in general is Jabrill Peppers, because he’s the most well known example, but a better player to look at as it relates to Ohio State’s use of it is probably Michigan’s Khaleke Hudson. Hudson did it all for the Wolverines in 2018, and outside of that nasty defensive line, he may have been their most important overall player.

I say that, because unlike a typical position, Hudson didn’t have one or two general objectives, or spots to play on the field. He served as an extremely versatile hybrid, playing up near the line to rush the passer, filling in as an outside linebacker at times, and dropping into coverage against teams that like to pass a lot. He could do that because at 6-foot, 220 pounds, he’s a tweener. He’s bigger than most defensive backs, smaller than linebackers, and instead of being forced to lose or gain weight, Michigan plopped him right in the middle, and allowed him to serve, essentially, as a playmaker.

Now, how does this relate to Brendon White. Well, at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, White has the size of a safety, but a frame that could support ten pounds of muscle, which would make him much closer to that tweener spot. Then, Ohio State could use White’s instincts and aggressiveness in a far more appropriate way than as a run support safety next to Jordan Fuller (also a run support safety). In the viper spot, White would be able to use his athleticism to make plays in the backfield far more often, and he wouldn’t be forced to serve as a deep safety, which he simply doesn’t have the skill set for.

On top of that, the Buckeyes could slide a much more natural safety, maybe Josh Proctor, into White’s free safety spot, and use Fuller as a run support safety, while Proctor serves in the Malik Hooker centerfielder role. This would give Ohio State two natural-fit safeties, two natural cornerbacks in Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade, and a full-time viper in Brendon White.

So, as the football purists may be hollering about right now, yes. This is no longer a 4-3 defense. This is a 4-2-5 or a nickel. If White is on the field, Pete Werner isn’t, because Ohio State would only be playing two linebackers, likely some combination of Justin Hilliard/Baron Browning and Malik Harrison. This is scary for a program that hasn’t swayed from the 4-3 in decades, but with college football moving more and more towards the pass, it’s just a necessary change.

Why is the nickel necessary? Well, with essentially five defensive backs, Ohio State would have a much better counter for players like Rondale Moore, and offenses like Purdue’s and Nebraska’s that crushed the Buckeyes with speed out of the slot. Firstly, White could be used in man coverage if necessary, and not to slight Werner, I can guarantee White would have more luck in man-coverage than Werner did.

Secondly, Ohio State can use White in bracket coverages, which is the best way to cover speedy slot receivers because it uses two players to make sure both the inside and outside shoulders are accounted for (they’re also super helpful on RPOs, and basically the only good way to slow them down).

Thirdly, Ohio State can put White in zone across the middle, and take away the underneath game that absolutely gashed the Buckeyes all year long last year, and that Tuf Borland, Werner and Harrison had no answer for.

Lastly — and perhaps most importantly — depending on what you want from a defense, White in a viper spot gives the Buckeyes a speed infusion that they desperately need. Ohio State’s defense was slow, both in reacting and just in movement last season. With a more simple defense, Browning on the field instead of Borland, and five defensive backs, Ohio State will be back to the kind of speed that made past Buckeye defenses so elite.

White unlocks all of that. His versatility, athleticism, coverage skills, and ability to track the ball carrier make him an extremely unique and valuable player. Not everybody can play the viper position (as we saw last season with Werner), but when you have one that can, it can take a defense from good to elite.

That’s the importance of Brendon White. If used correctly, he won’t just help return the Buckeye defense to good, he can lead them to greatness; and to win a title, that’s exactly what Ohio State needs.