Welcome to an ongoing series here at Land-Grant Holy Land — Freshman Focus. The summer months are rapidly approaching as we anxiously await the beginning of preseason camp, when this year’s crop of Buckeyes will be back hard at work preparing for the 2021 campaign. That being the case, now is a great time to introduce you to Ohio State’s incredibly talented freshman class. Each edition of Freshman Focus will highlight one of the newest Buckeyes, and will hopefully provide a glimpse at what they will bring to the team in the coming years.
Today’s Freshman: Denzel Burke.
The 2020 class was a big one for restocking the defensive back unit, and Denzel Burke is another important part of that influx of talent. A native of Scottsdale, Arizona, the 6-foot, 189-pound DB comes to Ohio State as the No. 8 athlete in the nation and the No. 194 prospect in the cycle overall. Arizona isn’t exactly known as a college football recruiting hotbed, but when the Buckeyes go all the way across the country to snag the state’s third-best player, you know there must be a reason why.
Burke flew under the radar a bit during the recruiting process, but still managed to haul in around 25 offers from a variety of schools, including the likes of Auburn, LSU, Oregon, Texas, USC and others. He dropped a top five back on May 12, 2020, in which Ohio State was the only non-PAC-12 school to make the cut alongside Colorado, Oregon, USC and Washington. Just a short while later, on May 24, Burke announced that he would be a Buckeye, and he made things official when he signed on the dotted line this past December.
Officially listed as an athlete, Burke played both wide receiver and defensive back in high school. He began his career at Brophy Prep in Phoenix before transferring to Sagauro High School, however he would play in just one game as a senior before his season was cut short with an injury. As a junior, he averaged 44.7 receiving yards per game and four touchdowns with another 337 rushing yards on over 14 yards-per-carry while also registering two interceptions on defense as he did a little bit of everything.
Burke has been especially dominant on the defensive side of the ball, which is where he projects at the next level. He was viewed as the Arizona Republic’s No. 1-ranked game-changing cornerback and athlete, and you can see his full athleticism on display in his highlight tape.
As previously stated, Arizona hasn’t exactly functioned as a fertile recruiting ground year in and year out, but that hasn’t stopped Ohio State from going back to the well and attempting to find some diamonds in the rough in PAC-12 territory. In fact, the Buckeyes have had a ton of success in the state in these past few classes, landing both Lathan Ransom and Jack Miller in 2020 as well as currently holding a verbal commit from Kyion Grayes in 2022.
As a top-200 national recruit, Burke has understandably drawn a good amount of praise from the talent evaluators. Blair Angulo, mountain region recruiting analyst at 247Sports, compares his game to that of Demarcus Robinson on the Kansas City Chiefs, projecting him as a Day 3 NFL Draft pick with solid upside if he can add some size. Here is the full extent of Angulo’s scouting report on Burke:
“Thin build with long arms and projectable frame. Should take good on weight over next few years. Fluid athlete that could thrive on offense or defense. Very good ball skills. Dynamic receiver with quickness to explode out of his breaks. Sets up defenders well to gain separation after the catch. Speed makes him a threat to score from anywhere. Decent in coverage as a defender with fluidity to stick to wideouts. Must improve physicality and durability. Potential multi-year starter and NFL Draft Day 3 selection.”
Burke has already turned heads in spring practice after enrolling early this January, which is especially impressive coming off of season-ending shoulder surgery. Ohio State’s plan was always for the dynamic athlete to play cornerback in Columbus, and according to defensive backs coach Matt Barnes, Burke was ahead of schedule is his transition to becoming a full-time corner. Barnes lauded his footwork and patience that have helped the young DB succeed in press-man coverage and other schemes the OSU defense will ask of him, and the increased reps with Sevyn Banks out this spring certainly couldn’t have hurt.
“Not that we’re surprised, but I am to a degree just kind of blown away by how far along he looks at times,” Barnes told Cleveland.com. “Now, he’s still got a long way to go — don’t get me wrong. But he looks pretty natural in there.”
Ohio State definitely needs to improve in the secondary this season, and maybe Burke will get a chance to play a role in that improvement in year one. There are a ton of guys in that room fighting for spots on the field, as in addition to Banks the roster still includes the likes of Cam Brown (notably coming off an achilles injury) and Marcus Williamson as well as second-year players like Ryan Watts, Lejond Cavazos and Cam Martinez. It is a position group crowded with talent, but none of them have proven themselves just yet and experience is lacking across the board.
Somewhere in there are three productive starting Ohio State cornerbacks, and while I don't think Burke will work his way to the top of the depth chart in year one, I certainly wouldn’t rule out him playing a role in some kind of rotation that sees him taking snaps outside of just garbage time. Barnes and defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs are tasked with making significant improvements in the back half of the Buckeye defense, and maybe Burke and the rest of this injection of youth are exactly what the OSU secondary needs to return back to its dominant ways.