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Damon Arnette is Ohio State’s defensive leader, no matter what you think of him

The senior has to step up in 2019.

Graphic via Patrick Mayhorn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State’s coaches — both old and new — have made it pretty clear this offseason that Damon Arnette is set to be a large part of the 2019 Buckeyes. Jeff Hafley, Matt Barnes, Ryan Day and just about everyone else who could have something to say about Arnette has heaped praise on the senior cornerback, raving about his talent and his ability to quickly pick up new schemes. All of that positivity, all of the talk about Arnette starting at cornerback this season alongside Jeff Okudah, all of the “leadership” synonyms thrown around stand in pretty stark contrast to what many considered to be Arnette’s worst year yet in 2018.

How does that happen? What are coaches seeing that fans haven’t yet? Has Arnette truly improved under a new system? Is he one of many — joining Tuf Borland, Pete Werner, Jahsen Wint, Isaiah Pryor and quite a few others — as defenders who struggled greatly last season, but are ready to break out in 2019?

Well, as we’ve said many times this offseason, a lot of those questions hinge on Ohio State’s defensive changes. With an almost completely brand new staff in place on that side of the ball, Ohio State has obvious plans to depart from Greg Schiano’s press-heavy, man-oriented defense that led to one of the worst defensive seasons in recent history at Ohio State.

If the new staff is able to fix those problems, shift into a more modern nickel-base defense, and put players in a better position to succeed, it could absolutely mean a renaissance for players like Borland, Werner, Pryor, Wint and, yes, even Arnette.

The changes would be pretty obvious for the first two names. In a system with more zone, an extra defensive back, and less thinking, Borland and Werner could serve exclusively as run stuffers, which seems to be the spot in which they have the most value. Would that mean less playing time? Sure, but it would also mean higher quality of playing time, and fewer situations where they look out of position or confused.

The answers are pretty easy to imagine at safety as well. Again, that zone means that the assignments for deep safeties change. Wint could serve primarily as a nickel back, which fits his skill set perfectly, and Pryor can play deep coverage rather than attempt to either make tackles by himself in the rushing game, or to play man coverage, neither of which brought him much success in 2018.

For Arnette, and Ohio State’s entire cornerback room, however, the answer is a little more hypothetical, a little less scheme based, and a little more difficult to find right away. There’s not a massive surface level change to the way that Ohio State is doing things at corner. More zone is helpful for Arnette, sure, as is more help in the form of a nickel back, but the job of a corner is pretty unique. It’s really unlike any other position on the defense, because on quite a few plays, you have one job, and it’s probably one of the most difficult in sports.

You have to mirror a player who runs just as a fast as you, might be bigger than you, and, unlike you, knows the play, the route, and the timing.

In general, Arnette has been better at that than Ohio State fans give him credit for, and he’s now entering his third year as a starter, and fourth as a contributor. That experience has value, and he’s nowhere near the scrub that he’s been made out to be in some circles. He’s flashed talent for years now, and he showed in Ohio State’s last few games in 2018 that he can serve as a solid cornerback for the Buckeyes.

Is he a lockdown, number one type? Probably not. Using him in that way was unfair and essentially doomed him to fail. He isn’t big enough to survive against top receivers, and he got picked on in those matchups because of it. His tendency to get beaten deep while he protects against underneath passes can be partially attributed again to an insanely aggressive and bad defensive scheme, but also partially to the fact that Arnette was playing out of position. He’s a number two cornerback, and perhaps even a slot cornerb, and he was never going to work as the lockdown option.

That’s where you can start to see the change. While the scheme will obviously help him a bit, specifically on taking away those wide open slants, the bigger change is personnel.

Jeff Okudah seems ready to take over as CB1, and he has the size and athleticism to do that, unlike Arnette. Shaun Wade is in a similar spot, and while he seems likely to serve as a nickel corner/slot corner or safety this year, he may be even better suited switching with Arnette and moving to the outside, and that’s a change I could see happening early in the season.

Regardless of if Ohio State actually makes that change, Arnette has help this season that he really didn’t in the past two. He was better in 2017 than he was in 2018 because of the play of Denzel Ward, Damon Webb, Jordan Fuller and a better than average linebacker group. The scheme was still bad, but we’ve seen Arnette at least survive when he’s surrounded by more talent and allowed to serve as a compliment to the lockdown rather than be the lockdown himself.

Now, entering 2019, Ohio State has a similar level of talent in the defensive backfield. Fuller is back, the aforementioned Wade and Okudah look ready to shine, and the linebackers can’t get a whole lot worse than in 2018. The scheme will be better, and Okudah is yet another year older and after a full offseason spent with one of the best defensive backs coaches in the game in Jeff Hafley.

You may be afraid of the name, and you may doubt the legitimacy of the claims of change, but Damon Arnette is here to finish out his career. He’s expected to lead this defense, and frankly, it seems that the stars are aligning for him to finally breakthrough and put together a full, consistent season. Is it an “I’ll believe it when I see it” situation? Absolutely, but it’s feeling more and more likely that Ohio State fans will be seeing a new and improved Damon Arnette this fall.