Following another stellar season that culminated in a 12-1 record and a Fiesta Bowl win, Ohio State will see more turnover in 2016than just about any program in the nation. After sending 12 players to the first four rounds of the NFL draft, the Buckeyes return just 24 percent of their 2015 production on offense and defense. That’s lower than all but one team in the country (UMass), according to SB Nation.
And so it’s time for new faces to step up – as they often do at Ohio State, the Midwest’s best program at recruiting talent and then turning it over to the NFL. All of the starters and role players will have their importance, but some will carry far more than others.
Each day at noon (ET) through July 21, we’ll count down another one of the 10 most important players to Ohio State in 2016. Because it’s still early, we’ll be making some role projections. With only 10 spots, we’ll leave off some crucial players, too. That’s part of the game.
Here’s our list so far:
Let’s continue with No. 9:
No. 9: Gareon Conley, junior cornerback
When Eli Apple, Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell all declared for the draft as underclassmen, out went almost all of a starting secondary that finished 2015 ranked 16th in passing yards, the best of the Urban Meyer era.
All but Gareon Conley.
It’s the losses around him that make the 6-foot, 195-pound Conley a crucial piece of this year’s Buckeyes team, in addition to the responsibility any No. 1 cornerback takes on for a championship-contending team. He might not face the biggest star receivers in the Big Ten, but with a Sept. 17 date at Oklahoma and, they hope, a potential date in the College Football Playoff, the Buckeyes are going to have to shut down stars on the outside if they want to meet expectations in 2016. That responsibility will fall on Conley.
Conley wasn’t a special player last season, but he was an effective one. He didn’t face many great receivers but found ways to make some plays, finishing second on the team with two interceptions and becoming the only defensive back on the team to record a sack.
This year, the Buckeyes will need him to raise that level of play to near what Apple’s was because the reinforcements around him aren’t nearly as proven. If Conley is able to take opposing No. 1 receivers in man coverage, it will alleviate the deep responsibilities of his new safeties and will give more rush time to Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis, who won’t have free shots to the quarterback any longer with first-round pick Joey Bosa gone.
As important as Conley is to the development of the back end, the Big Ten remains a run-first conference without many dynamite receivers in need of combatting with a true shutdown corner. Even if he performs at a high level, he has to hope he isn’t just the player opponents throw away from and still find success. The new secondary members have to step up for it to really matter.
So although Ohio State needs its No. 1 cornerback to deliver, players who can control more of the team’s success on their lonesome will be higher on the list.