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You’re Nuts: Who could be a surprise starter for the Buckeyes this season?

There are a bunch of guys in the mix at key positions as the season opener is just two days away.

NCAA Football: Ohio State Spring Game Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.

In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.

This week’s topic: Who could be a surprise starter for the Buckeyes this season?

Josh’s Take: Lathan Ransom

Ohio State and their coaches have done a pretty good job of keeping position battles and plans close to the vest. With only a few days until opening kickoff on Sept. 2, there are still a lot of questions regarding the Buckeyes’ depth chart. With that in mind, it is difficult to predict a surprise starter for the opener. I fought Gene tooth and nail on this because I did not want to sound like a fool, but he is generally smarter and comes up with better debate topics. So here goes nothing…

I predict that sophomore DB Lathan Ransom will be a “starter” on Thursday night. He may or may not be out there for the first snap, but I believe he will play a majority of the snaps on defense. My hunch is based not only on his versatility, but also his strong finish to the 2020 season. If he is not playing the cover safety over Marcus Williamson, I think the two will rotate — and Ransom will get additional snaps in the slot as a more traditional nickel corner.

Ransom was on an upward trajectory as the end of last season, playing a season-high 28 snaps against Clemson. He progressed quickly, and his development was even more impressive considering the fact that he was a summer enrollee as a true freshman and did not have the benefit of a traditional offseason. Coaches have spoken highly of the former four-star from Arizona, and it is not as if he is trying to earn a starting gig over Sevyn Banks or Josh Proctor.

No offense to Marcus Williamson, Cam Martinez, Craig Young, or Ronnie Hickman, but there is little reason to believe that the cover safety and/or bullet spots are reserved – let alone ready to be deployed with confidence. The Ohio State secondary was a dumpster fire last season, and the bullet position is more of a theory than a known commodity right now. No player in the back seven, outside of Banks and Proctor, is inherently deserving of a spot in the starting lineup… and as much as I expect Banks and Proctor to be great this season, they were part of the problem last year. They are not exempt from being replaced if they struggle.

Getting back to Ransom, I believe he is a star in the making. Recruited as a safety, he progressively earned trust from the OSU coaching staff as a true freshman in 2020. He played more and more as the season wore on, and eventually earned practice reps with the ones as both a slot corner and cover safety. I think we see him plenty both of those positions Thursday, and I expect him to be on the field a lot.

Both of those positions would put him in the slot a great deal, but depending on what we see from Minnesota, I think we could also see Ransom play a smaller version of the bullet position. There is even a scenario where neither Young or Hickman (or whomever) is ready to get on the field as the primary bullet, and we see a rotation of Proctor, Williamson, and Ransom all taking turns as “non-corners”. Maybe Proctor is in the bullet spot, and Williamson/Ransom are positioned deep. Who knows!? With so much uncertainty behind the defensive line, the Buckeyes will want their seven best players on the field behind them.

Ransom has the size and ability to do a lot of different things. At 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, he is big enough to support against the run and possesses enough speed that he will not be smoked off the line by an opposing wideout. In his limited experience last season, he looked solid against slot receivers and showed an ability to be in the right spots on the field. We saw how beneficial Shaun Wade was to the Buckeyes’ defense in 2019, and Ransom could fill a similar role.

Wade played a lot of slot corner in 2019, but he was also expected to support the run and deliver hits… which is what he did. He failed as an outside corner in 2020, but it could be argued that he was outside only out of necessity and the coaches failed to play to his strengths. Some players thrive in hybrid DB roles, and Ransom could be one of those players.

Throughout the season, I expect Kerry Coombs, Matt Barnes, and the other defensive coaches to find a way to use Ransom as a chess piece. Slot corner? Sure. Drop back to cover safety? Absolutely. Bullet position as a part of a speed-oriented defense against pass-heavy teams? Let’s gets crazy. Ransom has a versatile skillset, and the staff obviously saw enough talent and potential that they were willing to increase his snaps in the CFP. Ohio State should be willing to experiment after a tough defensive showing last year, and Ransom is a unique Swiss Army knife, capable of filling multiple roles.

Gene’s Take: Denzel Burke

It would be easy to pick one of the five-star freshmen to earn a starting job to begin the season, but I'm not entirely sure any of those guys sitting atop the depth chart to begin the year would be all that surprising. By all accounts, TreVeyon Henderson is firmly in the mix for the starting running back job, while Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau will both see more than their fair share of playing time at defensive end. Emeka Egbuka will be a great player, but isn’t going to start over Ohio State’s experienced star wideouts, while Kyle McCord and Quinn Ewers are obviously not coming out on Thursday as QB1. That leaves Donovan Jackson, who will be a starter soon but is not yet in the Buckeyes’ plans at guard.

Similar to Josh’s pick of Ransom, I think the defensive secondary leaves the most room for a surprise starter. Outside of Sevyn Banks at corner and Josh Proctor at safety, the door is pretty much wide open at all other positions. I agree with Josh that Ransom will start at slot corner, while it seems as though Craig Young and Ronnie Hickman will spit time at the bullet. That just leaves the other outside corner job without a name, and that is where my surprise pick comes in. While many believe that role will be filled by Cameron Brown or maybe even redshirt freshmen like Lejond Cavazos or Ryan Watts, I think instead it will be a true freshman out there: Denzel Burke.

Burke got lost in the shuffle a bit among Ohio State’s loaded 2021 class. The Buckeyes brought in a bunch of talented defensive backs in the cycle, highlighted by high four-stars in Jakailin Johnson and Jordan Hancock. In fact, Burke finds himself as the fifth-highest rated DB in OSU’s class, also behind safeties Andre Turrentine and Jantzen Dunn. However, Burke was a highly-rated prospect in his own right, and has been making a ton of waves in preseason camp.

Originally listed as an athlete, Burke committed to Ohio State as the No. 8 ATH and the No. 198 player in the class overall, also coming in as the third-highest rated player from his home state of Arizona. Playing both wide receiver and DB in high school, Burke was the Arizona Republic’s No. 1-ranked game-changing cornerback and athlete. Unfortunately, his senior season was cut short after just one game because of an injury, but his clear athleticism and ball skills as well as his impressive speed makes up for a lot of that lost time — as evidenced by being the first 2021 freshman to lose his black stripe in preseason camp and the sixth man overall.

From what has been seen from the handful of viewing periods of practice Ohio State has opened up to the media, Burke has been a tough guy to miss. His name is being constantly called over the loudspeakers, and he looks to be making a real push to be a significant player in a secondary that could really use an infusion of youth and skill. He has drawn rave reviews from position coach Matt Barnes and defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs, and was graded as a champion following a team scrimmage earlier this month. While all of these are obviously huge in Burke potentially earning a starting role, I think the biggest thing going for him right now is opportunity.

As previously mentioned, that other outside corner spot is wide open. Cam Brown would appear to be the most likely starter, but who knows if he will be 100% to start the year after coming off an achilles injury last season. Marcus Williamson is in the mix, but he is more of a slot corner/safety and wasn’t very good in either role last season. Outside of those guys, you have a combination of Cavazos, Watts, and Demario McCall — a trio of player who have a combined 28 snaps at corner in actual games, all of which by Watts. Burke is also competing with Johnson and Hancock, but is the only one of the three to enroll early, so he has a bit of a leg up there as well.

Ohio State cannot afford to stick with the status quo this season on defense. Last year’s passing defense was painfully awful, ranking 122nd out of 127 teams — yes, it was THAT bad. You cannot simply plug and play the same guys you had last season, minus Shaun Wade, and expect things to magically fix themselves. I expect to see a youth movement across the Buckeye defense this season, and that will be especially true in the secondary. The move to a 4-2-5 scheme should help in that regard, but if you have talented players on the roster, you have to be willing to play them over guys that have spots purely based on seniority. I fully expect Denzel Burke to be a big part of the Silver Bullets in 2021.