Ohio State’s defense last season was incredibly inconsistent, and at times really bad, in almost every facet of the game. Time and time again they allowed huge chunk run plays, getting fully exposed after allowing 340 rushing yards to Maryland. The passing game wasn’t much better, as Rondale Moore was quick to exploit with his 170-yard receiving performance in the Buckeyes’ lone loss to Purdue. However, by the end of the season, things started to turn around.
From the 62-39 rout of Michigan and onward, the team had seemed to finally put it together, giving hope for an improved defense in 2019. Now, with an almost entirely new coaching staff on the defensive side of the ball and new schemes in place, Ohio State appears ready to flip the script. If they are going to try and erase the memory of that awful defensive mess last season, the Buckeyes will need to continue to see improved play from the cornerbacks.
Luckily for Ohio State, the same guys that showed immense improvement late last season have all, apart from Kendall Sheffield (NFL Draft), returned for 2019. The Buckeyes are very strong at the top of the depth chart at corner, with the No. 1 guy being Jeffrey Okudah. A five-star recruit in the 2017 class, Okudah came to OSU as the top cornerback in the country and No. 8 player overall. He got to showcase his skills early on, getting a decent amount of playing time as a reserve his freshman year before joining what was mostly a three-man rotation at corner last season, having a breakout game in the Rose Bowl against Washington. With a chance to finally take the field every snap, Okudah could very well be the next Ohio State corner taken in the first round of the NFL Draft.
With Okudah holding down a spot, there will be stiff competition for who lines up at his side. The two guys in contention are Shaun Wade and Damon Arnette, although both will likely be on the field when the Buckeyes go to a nickel defense. Arnette will probably get the bulk of the snaps as a senior and one of the more experienced starters on the team, but could be used primarily as the team’s nickel corner as he is a bit undersized and perfect for covering an opponent’s slot receiver. Wade, on the other hand, is going to be moved around a bunch as his versatility allows him to play either corner or safety and maybe even take some snaps in the bullet position.
While the trio of Arnette, Okudah and Wade will see the majority of playing time in Jeff Hafley’s secondary, things get a little more uncertain as Ohio State goes to their bench. None of the guys behind that trio have received a ton of playing time to this point, so the first man up off the bench is nowhere near set in stone, as the job will have to be won with a good performance in preseason camp.
The two guys to this point that seem the most likely candidates in the reserve roles are Sevyn Banks and Tyreke Johnson. Banks had the biggest moment of his young Buckeye career when he returned Chris Olave’s blocked punt for a touchdown against Michigan. Despite not playing any defensive snaps last season, the exiting Greg Schiano believed he could be the next big-time corner at OSU, and he will probably get a chance to flash his potential this year. Johnson, on the other hand, came to Ohio State as a five-star recruit and the No. 21 player in his class. Much like Banks, he did not see the field much, recording only two defensive snaps in 2018.
The two underclassmen will be jockeying for playing time with a few other guys at the position, including Marcus Williamson, Cameron Brown and maybe even Amir Riep. Williamson, a junior, has had his progress slowed by injuries, missing the final nine games of last season and some of spring practice. Brown had injury problems of his own, and as a sophomore the majority of his snaps will likely be on special teams. Riep is interesting, getting recruited to OSU as a corner but moving to safety his sophomore year. He is still listed on the roster as a safety, but could take on a role much like Wade’s as a versatile defensive back.
Ohio State’s cornerback position is very strong at the top, but depth will obviously be a question mark. While the guys behind their starting trio clearly possess talent, they have little to no experience in actual game scenarios and could struggle a bit if forced into action for whatever reason.
The Buckeyes are expecting to see the Okudah that showed up in the Rose Bowl. When it comes to Arnette, they are hoping for consistency. As the most tenured starter on Ohio State’s defense, recording more than 1,100 snaps in the past two years, Arnette has shown the ability to play like a No. 1 guy, but has gotten burned on a number of occasions, especially last season. With Okudah, Arnette and Wade all on the field in nickel, the defense should have no problem keeping up with opposing receivers, as the three all possess tremendous speed.
The experience Hafley brings with him from the NFL will no doubt help in coaching the Silver Bullets to a way more productive season than they saw in 2018. It will also hopefully help cut down on the pass interference penalties that plagued the unit throughout the year. The talent is certainly there, they just have to put it all together.