Ohio State is known as one of the few programs in all of college football that doesn’t rebuild, but instead reloads every season.
Star players have proven to be easily replaceable for the most part. There’s no better example of that than the Buckeyes platoon swaps in the secondary of recent years.
Questions surrounded the unit before the 2016 season began due to the departures of first-round draft pick Eli Apple, second-round draft pick Vonn Bell, and NFL free-agent signee Tyvis Powell.
Those questions were quickly answered as Malik Hooker, Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley all surprisingly showed to be upgrades. But that’s life at OSU, and the standout trio went on to be first-round selections in this year’s draft after electing to take their talents to the pros.
Those departures left coach Urban Meyer and Co. with another set of enormous shoes to fill.
Week One is almost here and the top three cornerbacks in rotation are returning starter junior Denzel Ward, redshirt sophomore Damon Arnette, and junior college transfer Kendall Sheffield.
Ward has the look of a breakout candidate and is already projected to be a future first-round pick. The Buckeyes will lean heavily on him as the secondary works through some growing pains early on in the season.
Opposite of Ward is Arnette, the fourth corner in rotation in 2016. He’s held the edge over the freak athlete Sheffield, but cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs plans to rotate at least three this year. The fourth cornerback spot is up for grabs and former five-star Jeffrey Okudah might be the one to take it.
Thought of as the weak link in the Buckeyes secondary last season, Damon Webb returns as the lone starter. Webb knows he must improve if OSU’s defensive backs are going to be an elite unit again.
"It’s definitely up to me to be a leader, show them what it means to call ourselves B.I.A. (Best in America), with no drop-off or no lagging off," Webb said, per Eleven Warriors. "So it’s definitely up to me to set the standard and keep the tradition going."
The senior safety was okay in 2016, compiling 57 total tackles and a pick-six. There won’t be many moments where he leaves the field this season, and Isaiah Pryor – the second freshman to lose his black strip this year – will see minutes when Webb does hit the sideline.
Lining up next to Webb will be either senior Erick Smith or sophomore Jordan Fuller. They’re both battling it out and defensive coordinator Greg Schiano has yet to announce a starter.
"They are both doing very well and making the decision very difficult," Schiano said. "We have some decisions to make. We are going to sit down and talk after tomorrow and formulate a plan."
The younger Fuller also seems to have a leg-up on Smith given his 6-foot-2, 207-pound frame. It could be the deciding factor in a competition that has been neck-and-neck up to this point.
"There are some differences. Jordan is a little taller and a rangier guy. He is probably a little bit quicker," Schiano said. "They are really both good football players though and we are fortunate to have them both."
Smith’s three years of experience is tough to ignore, but both safeties will likely split time through the first couple games of the season.
Meyer and his coaching staff have handily dealt with turnover in the secondary before, as demonstrated last year.
But this season is different. Nearly an entire new group of defensive backs is taking center stage. While there’s obviously still plenty of talent in place to meet expectations, you just don’t know until you, well, know.
Ward and Webb’s leadership should help smooth over whatever struggles the backend of the defense experiences. And with Columbus being home to one of, if not the best front seven in the country, the opportunities to make plays will certainly be there.
Patience is key for the Buckeyes secondary, who’s potential is limitless.