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Ohio State’s midseason breakout stars, defense: Denzel Burke

Burke was thrown into action early, and quickly proved himself worthy of a starting spot. Now six games in, he looks like he could be the next great Buckeye corner.

Burke has had plenty of big plays to celebrate this season
Photo by Gaelen Morse/Getty Images

Due to the usual mass exodus of NFL talent and attrition at certain positions, Ohio State was bound to have a few breakout players this season – stars even. The Buckeyes lost the likes of Justin Fields and Trey Sermon on offense, as well as Shaun Wade and every linebacker that has played since the Bush administration on defense. At a program like OSU, the expectation is to reload and simply carry on with your winning ways. Sometimes the transition is seamless, other times it can be a bit rocky. I think it’s fair to describe the early stages of 2021 as “rocky”.

Despite the ups and downs of those first few weeks, Ohio State has seemingly found its way. And guess what? That’s fine! There should be a realistic expectation (fans: we’re guilty) that the Buckeyes don’t get to just roll the ball out and leave with a victory each week. Teams don’t make it to the CFP because of their brand or the logo on their helmets… err, they don’t always make it for those reasons. They earn it (for the most part) through hard work, dedication, and all that cliché junk.

Often times, the process and the growing pains are the most enjoyable parts of the experience. Building a contender is not supposed to be easy. Replacing Fields, or Sermon, or one of the Bosa brothers is never easy. It’s the grind that makes the celebration worth it. Coaches make a considerable effort to implement a scheme(s), recruit the right players, develop them, and put them in a position to succeed.

Despite their best efforts, sometimes coaches just miss. They miss on the player, or they miss on said player’s ability to fit into the scheme – or ability to fit into the program, which is generally a bummer for all involved. The work ethic isn’t there. The attitude is poor. The skills don’t translate. Coaches never anticipate a miss, but when it happens, I bet they can usually look back and say to themselves “Yeah, I should have seen that coming”.

On the other end of the spectrum, are pleasant surprises. Coaches would never admit it, but occasionally players are throw-ins or depth additions. If you strike gold, that three-star guy becomes a Heisman Trophy winner. Other times, less-heralded players developer sooner than anyone anticipated and/or they just take advantage of an opportunity. When the pleasant surprises outnumber the misses, you’re doing something right. And when those surprises start to add up, you become a better team. The Buckeyes have come across a few very pleasant surprises in 2021, and these breakout players are at the top of the list.

Denzel Burke, CB

Coming into the 2021 season, everyone knew that Ohio State’s defense was going to A) suffer through growing pains due to youth and inexperience and B) need to improve upon their 2020 showing. The staff knew, the rest of the roster knew, and the fans sure as heck knew. Because we as fans are limited in what we see from practice, spring games, etc., we can only draw conclusions as to what we will see on the field come gameday. Ryan Day doesn’t help matters any (nor should he) by keeping a tight lid on the depth chart and any health/injury/discipline situations.

So, we all knew Sevyn Banks was a starting corner, likely to be joined by Cam Brown… right? Behind the starters, there would be plenty of reps up for grabs, and very little experience to choose from. Maybe Ryan Watts would step in due to his year of experience. Same goes for Lejond Cavazos. Well, you know what they say about assumptions…

Denzel Burke has forced many a Buckeye fan to eat their words, including myself. If you read my previous piece on Jaxon Smith-Njigba as Ohio State’s offensive breakout, you might remember that I define a surprise breakout as one where a player elevates his game from one level to the next — not a complete unknown coming in and finding success right away. For that reason, I was tempted to recognize Steele Chambers for his transition from running back to linebacker, but Burke has just been too good. He is arguably OSU’s top defensive player thus far in 2021, and deserves to be singled out as a burgeoning star.

Burke entered the fray early by enrolling in January, but as the third-highest corner recruit in the 2021 class, he may have been the least likely to start right away. In addition to Watts and Cavazos, who already had a year in the program, Burke would eventually be joined by top-five national CB recruits Jordan Hancock and Jakailin Johnson. Burke was certainly no throw-in, but as the No. 8 athlete in the country, he just barely landed in the top-200 nationally. All he has done since enrolling early is make every coach, teammate, and fan a believer.

The 6-foot, 190 pound freshman out of Scottsdale, Arizona has been a revelation for the Ohio State defense. Starting Week 1 against Minnesota, Burke has been thrown into the fire (or dumpster fire, depending on how you view the first three weeks) and acquitted himself well. Banks and Brown were both down with injuries for the opener, and although there were positive reviews coming out of camp, it was still somewhat surprising to see Burke claim a spot in the starting lineup. He led the team with three pass breakups against the Gophers and has not looked back since.

Now at the midway point, not even a healthy Banks can win his job back from the talented freshman. Burke only has 16 total tackles and one interception through six games, but his presence is felt on every passing down. He currently leads the team with six pass breakups, a majority of which came during the first few games. Teams have quickly learned not to test the fantastic freshman, as he has turned into a legitimate lockdown corner. When teams have targeted Burke, they have primarily been unsuccessful — and if he does get his hands on the ball… well, ask Noah Vedral of Rutgers how that turned out.

As the Buckeyes get deeper into conference play, the level of competition will increase. Guys like Jahan Dotson and Jailen Nailor will test the young DB. That being said, Burke gets to go up against the best receiving core in the country on a daily basis. You think Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba go easy on their teammate(s)? Ohio State preaches competition, so I can only imagine the practice reps pitting offense against defense. Burke should not be starstruck or overwhelmed by any receiver in the Big Ten, and that includes his own teammates. He has proven himself to be an upper-echelon defender at the college level.

Denzel Burke has gone from a player many teams recruited as a wide receiver, to a potential All-Big Ten or Freshman All-American cornerback. His willingness to enroll at Ohio State early and work his tail off, has paid dividends — not only for himself, but also for an OSU team that has desperately needed his stellar play in the secondary. If I were a betting man (which the state of Ohio does not allow me to be), I would put big money down on Burke being a three-year starter as a Buckeye and the next first-round draft pick from DBU.