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Ohio State needs Gareon Conley to solidify an inexperienced secondary

The lone returning starter in the Buckeye secondary will be a player to watch in Week 1.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The storylines surrounding the Ohio State football team during the 2015 offseason were all about how they were going to be able to maximize their historic levels of returning talent to win a second consecutive National Championship. While a 12-1 record and a 16-point victory over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl looks great in a vacuum, the 2015 Buckeyes didn’t quite live up to preseason expectations.

The situation is slightly different heading into this season as the 2016 team looks to replace 12 players taken in the NFL draft (including five in the first round) and two more unsigned free agents still on their respective rosters. While expectations are always high in Columbus, many national experts expect the Jim Harbaugh-led Team Up North to capture the Big Ten crown.

With only six starters returning, three on each side of the ball, Urban Meyer and staff are going to have to rely on their unproven stockpile of top-line recruiting talent to fill important holes left in every position group.

On offense, the once and future starter J.T. Barrett is now firmly entrenched under center, or in the gun as it were, and All-American Pat Elflein returns to Columbus to move inside to finish his collegiate career at center. Junior Billy Price is also back at right guard.

On defense, Tyquan Lewis returns to anchor the line at one end position, while Sam Hubbard will likely replace the finally signed No. 3 pick Joey Bosa on the other end, as he did following the All-American’s targeting ejection in the bowl game. All-Conference middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan should steady a talented corps, but it will be up to junior cornerback Gareon Conely to provide a measure of veteran leadership to the exceptionally inexperienced backend of the Ohio State defense. For this reason, he is the defensive player to watch in Saturday’s opening-week match-up with Bowling Green.

The stats

Year: Junior

Height: 6'0

Weight: 190 lbs.

2015 Stat Line: 58 targets, 21 completions allowed, 49 tackles, 2 interceptions, 5 pass breakups

As Christopher Jason pointed out in his “Most Important Players” series, Conley had a fairly strong sophomore season playing opposite Eli Apple, who eventually went 10th to the New York Giants. However, with Apple and safeties Von Bell and Tyvis Powell gone to the NFL, Conley moves from the short side cornerback position to the field side, changing his responsibilities.

Even if Ohio State’s sheer talent advantage makes this a less-than-competitive game, Bowling Green’s offense should provide a preview as to how the reloaded Buckeye defense will handle a growing number of pass-happy teams on their 2016 schedule.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Notre Dame vs Ohio State Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Long-term prognosis

Yes, Bowling Green did have the nation’s third-best rushing attack by some measures last season, but they also threw for 5,135 yards and that was before they lost leading rusher Travis Greene. Perhaps more importantly, the Falcons hired first-year head coach Mike Jinks, who most recently was Kliff Kingsbury’s offensive-minded associate head coach at Texas Tech. The Red Raiders ranked second in the FBS in passing yards per game a season ago with 388.2, and while their top-two 2015 receivers (Roger Lewis and Gehrig Dieter) are now with the New York Giants and Alabama Crimson Tide respectively, they do return 2016 Biletnikoff Watch List wide receiver Ronnie Moore.

Combine that passing pedigree with BG’s 20th-ranked S&P+ passing offense from last season, and Conley and new starters Malik Hooker (safety), Damon Webb (safety), and Marshon Lattimore or Denzel Ward (cornerback) are likely to be tested early.

However, the real lesson to come out of the opening Saturday for the secondary isn’t necessarily how they handle a likely out-gunned Falcons’ offense. Instead, it’s whether or not Conley can lock down his new side of the field, allowing his untested compatriots the opportunity to work themselves up into traditional Buckeye secondary form, since they will be tested fairly regularly as the season progresses.

Despite the general consensus of national analysts and other conferences’ fans, many Big Ten offenses have all but abandoned the “three yards in a cloud of dust” mentality that defined the league for generations. Bowling Green’s third-ranked S&P+ rushing attack aside, only two teams on the Buckeyes’ schedule (and only one in-conference) ranked in the Top-30 last year; Oklahoma (No. 28) and Maryland (No. 14).

Conversely, Ohio State’s schedule sees them face six teams in the Passing S&P+ Top-30 from last year, BG (No. 20), Oklahoma (No. 11), Indiana (No. 14), Nebraska (No. 25), Michigan State (No. 30), and Michigan (No. 8).

With Conley covering the boundary for the first time on Saturday, this week’s matchup should give fans a glimpse into what the Buckeye defense will look like with three DBs making their first starts.

Ohio State cornerbacks coach Kerry Combs thinks his lone returning starter is up for the task. "Absolutely, Gareon is ready…He and I have met several times already about his opportunity to lead in the back end and that will be his job. It is wonderful when it works out that way."

Conley spoke to Dave Revsine and Howard Griffith about the new-look defense and what they expect from their newly inherited leadership positions.

What to watch for

While the role of a cornerback extends far beyond coverage, the expectation is that with a comparatively more experienced line and linebacking corps, that the passing game will be the biggest question mark for the Buckeyes’ defense this season.

Conley is an exceedingly talented athlete, and in his 13 games as a starter has proven that he has the versatility to be the next Ohio State DB taken in the first round.

So, keep an eye on if Conley is able to stick with Moore, or if he regularly needs help from the safeties. If No. 8 can lock down his side of the field, it will be a big boost to the young secondary starters as they attempt to get their game legs ready in time for a Week 3 trip to Norman, Oklahoma.