There will be plenty of new faces on the Ohio State defense in 2016, but Gareon Conley won’t be one of them. After starting all 13 games in 2015 as Ohio State’s number two corner, Conley is ready to take the crown as the Buckeyes’ boundary corner; a role that is typically reserved for the best cover corner on the team. With 2 interceptions and 49 total tackles in 2015, Conley has shown he can make plays, but it’s Conley’s physical attributes that could make him Ohio State’s latest highly drafted corner.
A 4-star recruit out of Massillon, Ohio, Conley’s 6’1 175 lb. frame was exactly what Ohio State was looking for out of their corners. Length and speed are the two of the best attributes a corner can have, and Conley was blessed with both.
After having a rough beginning to his career at the hands of Connor Cook and the Michigan State Spartans in 2014, Conley rebounded in 2015 and showed that he deserves to have his name mentioned among the Big Ten’s best:
Gareon Conley or Jourdan Lewis? pic.twitter.com/phM9BAiFDS— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) August 16, 2016
Jourdan Lewis is one of the better defensive players in the Big Ten, so for Conley to have a case against him statistically is very encouraging. Even more encouraging for Conley is that he has demonstrated the ability to do everything that will be asked of him at boundary corner. Being able to step up and defend the edge against the run is nearly as important as being able to lock down an opponent’s top receiver, and Conley is more than capable of accomplishing both these tasks.
Saying a corner needs to be more physical goes against the archetype of the position in a way; corners are typically quick twitch athletes who are on the field because of their coverage abilities, not their tackling abilities. Conley himself has noted his need to become stronger in order to become a better corner, but he showed flashes in 2015 of being able to perform when the run comes at him.
Illinois tried a lot of funky things against Ohio State in 2015 (including a hilariously bad flea flicker), and this overloaded formation into the boundary was one of them. Ohio State shifted their defense towards the strength of the offense, and Conley’s job is to contain any runs to his side of the field.
Conley immediately reads run at the snap, and Illinois’ fullback makes a beeline for Conley’s inside shoulder. Ideally this blocking scheme will open up a cutback lane for the running back if the fullback is able to move Conley out of the way.
The Illinois’ running back doesn’t have much of a hole thanks to Conley doing a great job of squeezing the lane, but the play is far from over. There isn’t a single Ohio State defender outside of Conley to stop the running back from getting to the corner, but Conley’s perfect technique in taking on the block leaves his outside arm free to help disengage from the blocker and make a play on the ball carrier.
Upon identifying the running back was attempting to bounce the play all the way outside, Conley disengaged beautifully from the blocker, and ran down the running back in quick fashion. Conley doesn’t just dive at the running back’s legs like a lot of corner, as he instead wraps and drives through the ball carrier. Conley is not afraid to take on running backs in the run game, he just needs to be more consistent with his tackling and physicality. As shown above, Conley is more than capable of making plays against the run, something he’ll be asked to do more often in 2016.
Conley’s greatest attribute is his lock-down coverage ability. Despite being targeted four more times than Apple in 2015, Conley actually allowed 1 less reception. This doesn’t mean Conley was better than Apple last year, just that Conley was more of a 1b to Apple’s 1a status. Every team has a clear best corner, but Ohio State was lucky enough to have two pretty damn good ones in 2015.
This fact wasn’t always apparent though, especially early on in the season. Conley was targeted often against the Buckeyes’ first few opponents, and he more than held his own. Interceptions against Hawaii and Rutgers ensued, and it seemed like every time a ball headed Conley’s way he was more than prepared to make a play on it:
Quick shout-out to Vonn Bell’s ridiculously athletic tip drill interception, but this turnover was all thanks to Conley’s blanket coverage. Ohio State runs a lot of cover-4 which essentially asks its corner to play man coverage on deep routes, but Conley showed time and time again that he is more than capable of tracking receivers closely all over the field. With co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano coming to town with his new bag of tricks, having a corner like Conley who can erase another team’s best receiver is invaluable.
Conley enters 2016 with considerably less hype than past Ohio State corners. Part of this is due to the focus of the off-season being more on the overall roster turnover than the returning starters, but Conley’s ability should be far from an afterthought for Big Ten offensive coordinators. As Apple’s surprising 10th overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft showed, long athletic corners are currently a luxury item in today’s NFL. Conley will need to show consistent ability to make plays as the Buckeyes’ clear number one corner in order to ensure an early selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, and he possesses all the talent and ability to do just that.