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Player to Watch: Denzel Burke seeks return to form he showed in freshman season

After an impressive freshman year, Denzel Burke struggled at times adjusting to Jim Knowles’ system during his sophomore campaign.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Every day from now until the start of the season, Land-Grant Holy Land is highlighting Ohio State football players that you should be watching this season. Check out all of our ”Player to Watch” articles to get ready for the season opener against Indiana.

During the 2021 college football season, Denzel Burke looked like the latest lockdown cornerback in a long line of them at Ohio State. Burke was just a freshman that year, but his performances put him on multiple freshman All-American teams, including 247Sports, The Athletic, and ESPN, and he was named to the third-team All-Big Ten Conference team.

The Phoenix, Arizona product took Columbus by storm in 2021, playing in 13 games and leading the Buckeyes in passes broken up, with 12. That was five more than second-place Cam Brown. He only had one interception as a freshman, but he returned it 23 yards for a touchdown against Rutgers. Burke finished his rookie year with 28 solo tackles and nine assists for 37 total stops, which was good enough for eighth on the team but he was first among cornerbacks.

The sky was the limit for Burke after posting such an impressive freshman season.

However, the cornerback had some coverage issues in 2022. Whether that was a change in technique or learning a new system under a new defensive coordinator and position coach, it was surprising to see Burke struggling in coverage. The Buckeyes had moved on from former defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs and secondary coach Matt Barnes. They were replaced in 2022 by Jim Knowles and Tim Walton, respectively.

Although Burke got a bit better in the second half of the season, he never reached the same level in his sophomore year that he did as a freshman.

Burke played in 11 games in 2022, finishing fifth among Buckeye tacklers, with 24 solo stops and 10 assists. He failed to intercept a pass as a sophomore — in fact, no OSU cornerback picked off a pass all season, which is an aberration, to say the least. It’s mind boggling to think that Ohio State defensive ends had three interceptions but not one cornerback picked off a pass last year.

But it wasn’t just interceptions that were lacking. Burke broke up just five passes in 2022 — a steep decline from the previous year. He also had a tendency to give up big plays, particularly in the season’s first half. Even when Burke had decent coverage, he often seemed to allow catches that extended drives or put the opposition in position to score.

If Ohio State is going to have a strong defense in 2023, Burke is going to have to return at least to his 2021 level of play, and perhaps even build on it the way fans expected him to last year. The Buckeyes can get to the quarterback more often if the coverage is tighter for an extra second or two after the ball is snapped.

Burke has shown he can provide that kind of coverage, but he must recover from last year’s rough start and set the tone early. Not only will that allow him to play more confidently, it will give opponents more trepidation about throwing the ball his way.

Ohio State’s offensive fortunes are assuredly going to depend on quarterback and offensive line play in 2023, but on the defensive side of the ball, there might not be a better barometer for how successful the Buckeyes will be than how Burke plays.