COLUMBUS, Ohio — For the second consecutive season, Ohio State’s defensive backs coaches find themselves in a predicament.
Fortunately for them, last year provided a blueprint for not only surviving but thriving. Ohio State lost three defensive back starters to the NFL after 2015 and somehow got better. Not only did the Buckeyes plug in three new starters who shined but they also showed off depth not previously seen at that spot during the Urban Meyer era.
Two of those first-time starters — cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Malik Hooker — are expected to become top-10 picks in the 2017 NFL Draft. Safety Damon Webb didn’t produce as well but returned an interception for a touchdown against Nebraska. Cornerback Gareon Conley, the lone returner last year, grew into a potential first-round selection.
Those players highlighted the defensive backfield, but a few others may have been as integral to the unit’s success. Cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Damon Arnette saw legitimate playing time thanks to Ohio State’s unrelenting rotation. That meant there were series in which either Conley or Lattimore was relegated to the sideline. It was a gamble, but it paid off. There was little dropoff from one player to the next, and the rotation kept them fresh.
The rotation worked wonders. The Buckeyes finished seventh nationally in passing yards allowed and third in pass-efficiency defense. The secondary helped set a program record for most interceptions returned for touchdowns in one season. Hooker set the program record for individual pick-6s with 3. It’s no wonder, then, that Meyer would like to continue that system.
“I think with the way we play defense, we’d like to do that,” Meyer said. “We’d like to play three or four — we’d like to play more than three or four. We learned a lesson [last year]. That was as good of production as we’ve ever had out at corner. Obviously, we had great players. But with what we ask those guys to do, it’s a track meet for 4 hours. If you can get a rotation in there, you’re going to be much better.”
There’s one small problem: Three of the starters in that historically good secondary are off to the NFL. Ohio State finds itself in the same position as last year, looking to plug three holes.
Ideally, it will find not only three starters but also some worthy backups. However, safeties coach Greg Schiano said the staff won’t keep the rotation if there’s a talent gap.
“The thing as coaches you can’t do is force something to happen,” he said. “But we sure hope we recruited well enough to do those type of rotations.”
Ohio State appears to have done that. Sophomore safety Jordan Fuller and redshirt freshman safety Wayne Davis were 4-star prospects in the Class of 2016.
This year, Meyer signed a group of defensive backs that could be the best of any school in the internet era. The Class of 2017 includes 5-star cornerbacks Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade, 4-star corners Marcus Williamson and Amir Riep, and 4-star safety Isaiah Pryor. Additionally, JUCO transfer Kendall Sheffield was a 5-star cornerback when he signed with Alabama in 2015.
“The cream has to rise to the top,” Schiano said.