Buckeye Breakdown: Ohio State secondary looks to replace three starters
As the season continues to grow closer, Ohio State’s depth chart at each position is beginning to take shape. With 16 starters from last year’s team lost to graduation or the NFL, this will be one of the program’s youngest teams in recent memory.
Join Landof10.com as we break down each of the position groups and what Buckeye fans can expect from each one this fall.
Next up is the defensive secondary, which needs to replace three starters and features a new safeties coach.
Assessing the roster
Who they lost: CB Eli Apple, S Vonn Bell, S Tyvis Powell
Who they added: CB Wayne Davis, CB Jordan Fuller, S Rodjay Burns, S Jahsen Wint
Who’s still there: CB Damon Arnette, CB Gareon Conley, CB Eric Glover-Williams, CB Marshon Lattimore, CB Joshua Norwood, CB Denzel Ward, S Cam Burrows, S Malik Hooker, S Erick Smith, S Damon Webb
Projected depth chart
- Cornerback: Gareon Conley, Damon Arnette
- Cornerback: Marshon Lattimore, Denzel Ward
- Safety: Malik Hooker, Erick Smith
- Safety: Damon Webb, Cam Burrows
As the only returning starter, Conley seems like a good place to start when citing the unit’s strengths. The Massillon (Ohio) Washington star put together a solid season in 2015, which helped him to take over Eli Apple’s spot as the boundary corner for this season.
On top of the fact that he gives Ohio State a true No. 1 corner with proven ability, he’s also made it his job to help bring the young players up to speed.
“Gareon has got some excellent leadership skills,” cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said. “Doran Grant was a great leader and he’s very, very similar to that in the way that he manages our room. Our room is young so it’s incumbent on him to be able to do that and he has been very, very good with the younger players, and I’m very excited about that.
“He’s vocal, he tells them how it is, he tells them how it ought to be and he helps them get there. I think that’s one of his great strengths. If somebody is stepping out of line, Gareon will pull them back in. I think that’s rare in today’s world and he’s very, very good at that.”
The Buckeyes also have a hidden gem in Hooker, although it’s a safe bet he won’t remain unknown for long. A former basketball star who only played two years of high school football, Hooker is among the best athletes in the program and wowed teammates over the last two years with his interceptions in practice.
And then there’s safeties coach Greg Schiano, who was hired to replace Chris Ash. The hiring of the former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach eased a transition that could have been much more difficult given the defensive overhaul that Ash oversaw in his two years at Ohio State.
“I feel like he’s had a great impact,” Webb said of Schiano. “A lot of players on our team respect him, and I know he has a lot of knowledge of the game. I know he’s going to bring a philosophy to our defense to take us to the next level.”
Can the three new starters make a seamless transition in the secondary? Or, more importantly, will Ohio State even find three players who can separate themselves from the pack?
Safety seems clear-cut for the time being, with Hooker and Webb both running with the first team in practice and viewed as the favorites to land the starting jobs. The picture at cornerback is a bit murkier. In the practices that the media has been allowed to view, Lattimore and Ward have been splitting first-team reps and Coombs is already trying to figure out if there’s a way to get both on the field.
“I think that Denzel and Marshon have had absolutely fantastic camps and you’re not going to be able to keep them off the field,” he said. “We’re going to figure out a way to make that work. Damon Arnette has also played extremely well, so we’ve got a very, very good and talented group there.”
What to expect
The secondary has been a strength of the team during the past two seasons after a disastrous performance in 2013, and it’s fair to ask if Ohio State can replicate that success with multi-year starters Apple, Bell and Powell off to the NFL.
However, the Buckeyes hit a home run when they were able to hire Schiano to replace Ash, and it’s not like the roster is short on talent. The team has two good options at safety and a starter at cornerback that many expect to leave for the NFL after this season. Of the top two players competing for the spot opposite Conley, both were four-star recruits in the 247Sports composite rankings and Ward is viewed as one of the fastest players on the team.
“We have four corners that are playing at a very high level right now and they’re fast,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “Denzel Ward’s probably the fastest on the team. I think he was a state 200 — DQ’d in the state 100, but he got the 200-meter championship, so he’s a legit, track fast. And you’ve got Damon Arnette, Gareon Conley, and there’s another one: Marshon Lattimore is playing outstanding right now. So we have four legitimate bump and run corners.”
Whether they’ll need an adjustment period remains to be seen, but it’s fair to set the expectations at the level of 2014, when Ohio State was also replacing three starters and its safeties coach. That team finished 28th in the country by allowing 201.1 passing yards per game and the following year improved to 16th nationally in 2015 with 184.5 yards allowed per game. A top-30 passing defense doesn’t seem too much to expect given the talent of the players and expertise of the coaching staff.