When Ohio State got back to work on the football field weeks after being trounced by Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, the Buckeyes did so with five of their six defensive back signees in the Class of 2017 on the roster.
After losing three defensive backs in the first round of the NFL draft — all three had remaining eligibility with the Buckeyes — there was a need to reload, and quickly.
The Buckeyes didn’t just sign the country’s top two prep cornerbacks (Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade), they signed six of the nation’s best defensive backs, including JUCO signee Kendall Sheffield, a former 5-star prospect who signed with Alabama in 2015.
It’s hard to argue against that group being the single best group of defensive backs signed by a school in the modern recruiting era. At least on paper.
Now, 15 practices into the 2017 season, those players — true freshmen, aside from Sheffield — are battling for a chance to not just fill a roster spot, but to be the next great Ohio State defensive back. That’s why every one of them enrolled early at Ohio State, minus Amir Riep (whose high school didn’t allow it).
The chance to make an early impact is there for the taking. Last season, Ohio State found itself so deep at cornerback that it eschewed traditional footballisms and used three “starters” at cornerback, platooning Denzel Ward, Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore. With the latter two now in the NFL, only Ward remains entrenched as a starter. However, Kerry Coombs, now in his sixth season as the cornerbacks coach at Ohio State, has similar plans in 2017, and he may go beyond three players.
Kerry Coombs plans another rotation of cornerbacks this season, potentially with four guys. Count on Ward, Sheffield and Arnette for sure. pic.twitter.com/VAKDDt5tYy
— Austin Ward (@AWardSports) August 16, 2017
Sheffield played in his freshman season at Bama, though sparingly, so it’s not a surprise that he’s penciled in as a major contributor for the Buckeyes this season. Damon Arnette, one of the three starters, has noticed an uptick in talent and competition.
“I feel like this year the younger guys are a lot better than I was,” Arnette said Wednesday. “The competition is good.”
Among the fresh faces, the most likely newcomer to vie for playing time at cornerback is Okudah.
“Jeff Okudah is making a huge push,” said Coombs. “[He’s] playing really well the last three days.”
Okudah, as noted, was the country’s No. 1-ranked cornerback in the Class of 2017. During the spring, he struggled to adjust to the college game. In fact, the Grand Prairie, Texas, product struggled so much that as a motivational tool his jersey number was changed — from 1 to 48 — to remind him he hadn’t earned his stripes.
Now he has: He was the fourth member of the 2017 class to have their “black stripe” removed by the Ohio State coaching staff. He’s in line to play.
Shaun Wade, the No. 2-ranked cornerback in the Class of 2017, has put in his best work at Ohio State in recent days, according to Coombs.
“Shaun Wade’s last two days have been his best two as a Buckeye,” Coombs said.
With the majority of the recruiting spotlight on Okudah and Wade, former Westerville (Ohio) South standout Marcus Williamson, who played his senior season at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., has sort of been the forgotten man. You’d be wrong to dismiss him, according to his position coach, but an injury has slowed him down.
“Marcus Williamson started off ahead of both of those guys,” Coombs said. “He’s got a little bit of a ding, so he’s missed three practices.”
Riep, as the lone June arrival of the bunch, is behind his peers, which Coombs said was expected.
As for the safety, Isaiah Pryor? He’s been turning heads all summer. He was the second Ohio State freshman to lose his black stripe, and he’s in a good position to play at safety. Damon Webb is locked in as one starter, but Pryor is in a good fight with Jordan Fuller and Erick Smith for playing time at the spot vacated by Malik Hooker.
“The young safeties — Isaiah and Jahsen Wint — have really gotten better,” Buckeyes defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said in early August. “That’s going to be exciting to see how that all sorts itself out.”
To be the next big thing in Columbus, it will take more than talent. Everyone on the Ohio State roster has talent. According to Coombs, the biggest obstacle is buy-in.
“More than anything,” he said. “The young guys have got to learn the culture of the unit, the culture of the program. I think when they really, really get that, and it becomes part of who they are, it will be a really, really cool thing for them.”