clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘Burning Questions’: What does Ohio State’s secondary need to do to return to the elite class?

Ohio State’s secondary has been a bit of sore spot as of late, but if they can return to the elite level, the sky is the limit for the Buckeyes defense

Ohio State v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Last year for Ohio State, their secondary was never able to put it all together as a collective unit. The cornerbacks battled health and inconsistency for most of the year, while the safeties started off playing consistent football until the most important part of the season.

This offseason personnel decisions have been made to provide competition in both the corner and safety room. Competition is supposed to bring out the best in all involved, but that will not be the deciding factor on if the Buckeyes’ back end improves in 2023. Being in year two of Jim Knowles’ scheme will be a huge factor in the Buckeyes being more comfortable with the techniques he wants, and a high-level secondary unlocks Knowles’ creativity.

Ohio State needs an elite secondary. There has been a wide gap between the last elite group after a successful run. There is also the chicken and egg argument about the coverage helping the pass rush, or the pass rush helping coverage. Regardless of which side is right, the secondary has been bad by Ohio State’s standards. That gives into the reason an improved secondary will make Ohio State’s front six that much better.

For secondary and corners coach Tim Walton and safeties coach Perry Eliano to get things churning again, the talent they have in the room should be enough. Coaching the scheme and technique with the amount of coverage is the most important aspect of getting this group to excel. But the burning question that lingers for most Ohio State fans: What can Ohio State’s secondary do to return to the elite class and bring back the BIA mindset?

Looking at the spring game, there is promise

Going back to last fall at this point is an unnecessary exercise. Everyone remembers the inconsistencies on the field and the lack of health all over the secondary. For the Buckeyes, the first major story coming out of the spring was Ohio State’s secondary sustaining no long-term injuries. Ja’Had Carter ended up banged up right at the end, but the rest of the group was able to get a full spring’s worth of practices in.

Ohio State did not do anything overly complex in the spring game, which is normal. What we saw from the corners was a commitment to playing up in press coverage and in the faces of receivers. Behind them at safety, the group was tested in both man coverage and over-the-top support in the varying zone coverages the Buckeyes play. Ohio State obviously played a lot of depth in the spring game, and the first two groups defensively held their own, not giving up a touchdown until late in the second quarter.

In the first play below, Ohio State is in a Cover-3 after showing a two-high look. The middle safety takes the deep middle drop and the Bandit on the short side replaces in the middle hole. By showing a different coverage, the receiver predetermined his route, which allowed the safety towards the boundary to sneak across to make the pass breakup. On this play the coverage was solid, the disguise worked, and there were no windows to throw the ball.

This next play shows the technique Ohio State is playing in zone coverage, but Denzel Burke is in single coverage making his responsibility more like man coverage. Burke does a great job of recognizing where his threats are, and he keeps his eyes on the quarterback. Once he realizes the quarterback was taking a three-step drop, he breaks toward the receiver, making a play on the ball.

Looking at this play is not necessarily the most telling, but what is exciting is Burke didn’t let the coverage dictate his reaction. Once he saw the play develop, he reacted. That is not something we saw a lot last year from any of the OSU DBs.

On this play, the offense runs a hard play-action. Marvin Harrison Jr. is playing out of the slot to the field, and the play-action brings the safety down hard. After the safety realizes the play is a pass, he retreats back to his zone, leaving a lot of space for Harrison Jr. to go. With the one safety crashing on the play fake, the impression was they were following Harrison Jr., with the safeties on the other side getting vertical because of the immediate threats.

This is a great play design on offense, but the miscommunications on the back end led to a big play. There were other bigger plays, but this to me highlighted that there are still going to be some areas of growth needed in this group.

Breaking down the safeties and what they need to do

The safeties are bringing back a shortlist of significant contributors and talented youth. Lathan Ransom leads the veterans who are returning, and Josh Proctor is also returning in the group with a small faction of fans still waiting for him to reach his massive potential. At the nickel, Cam Martinez showed in spring practice that he has come a long way and should be in the rotation. It was an especially important spring for Martinez given Carter's arrival from the transfer portal.

The experienced depth will only be bolstered by the young guys. Kye Stokes likely won’t play a significant role in the long-term plans of the season, but he should feature quite a bit early on to gain some experience. Sonny Styles is the other young guy, and he will have a role on the defense. On the podcast feed, I have time and time again compared him to LeBron James due to his physical maturity at 18 years old. This is by no means committing to saying he’ll be one of the greatest athletes of all time, but as a 17-year-old, Styles got real reps against Georgia in the Peach Bowl.

With the mixture of experience and the incredibly talented youth, there is no reason this safety group should take a step back. Even with the losses of Tanner McCalister and Ronnie Hickman, the Buckeyes return a ton of snaps. This means there will not be an inch given by fans for any form of regression.

For the safeties to return to the elite class, they don’t need three Malik Hookers on the back end of the defense. The best safety group in recent memory was Jordan Fuller, Shaun Wade, and Josh Proctor with a few other players in the mix. That is not a group that would be highlighted in a list of all-time greats at Ohio State, but they got the job done time and time again. These Buckeyes were singularly focused on excelling at their jobs and their responsibilities.

The defensive coordinator at the time, Jeff Hafley, kept it incredibly simple. That is not Knowles’ M.O., but he has said that at times he overthought in 2022. This year, a little bit of simplicity could go a long way. The biggest plays against the safeties last season can be attributed to Ransom being asked to do something he’s not great at, and miscommunications when groups who weren’t used to playing together ended up on the field at the same time.

These are both fixable and if they can limit putting players in spots they aren’t the most equipped to handle while keeping the communication simple, they can get to the elite group by just doing their job every play.

Breaking down the corners and what they need to do

One of the most notable players in the transfer portal this offseason was Ole Miss transfer Davison Igbinosun. Ohio State landed him, and he immediately came in and made a statement. This proved to bring the competition in the room to the highest level and also gave the Buckeyes a talented player who will be in the rotation.

The spring game showed that Denzel Burke was back to playing with confidence, it showed Jordan Hancock’s size and speed combination, and it showed the physicality Igbinosun is bringing to the room. Behind them will be Jyaire Brown and Ryan Turner, who showed that if called upon they can be serviceable corners. With all the injuries last season, the depth brought in and the experience gained are two benefits that will hopefully pay off this season.

For the corners to get to the elite level that has been missing, they need to get back to playing with confidence. Damon Arnette was not the most talented or gifted cornerback to come through Ohio State, but he played with a competitiveness that not many players possess. The current top three corners on the roster have more talent but have to develop that mentality a corner needs to go from being close to the play to making the play.

An elite level for corner includes not having games like the ones where a player like Parker Washington goes off for career-best numbers. Adding to that, being secure tacklers is the floor. The Cam Brown missed tackle is what turned the tide in the matchup against Michigan. If he makes the tackle, the Wolverines are more likely than not to punt the football. The corners playing fundamentally sound first will gain the confidence to become playmakers. Once they gain that confidence, it then just becomes relying on the athleticism and instincts that got them to this level.

Ohio State has the talent in the secondary to be truly great. With good health, I expect this group to be one of the best in the country. In combination with the safeties, I have a feeling they return to the top 10 nationally in the major passing offense categories. This is a prove-it year for the coaches, the players, and this group can set the tone for the entire team. To return to the elite level, it is going to take extreme commitment from the whole unit.

If they have it in them, the sky is the limit for the Ohio State defense.