COLUMBUS, Ohio — It’s all going according to plan. The crazy, unexpected, hard-to-believe plan.
Ohio State’s defensive coaches repeated over and over prior to the start of the 2016 football season that they were going to rotate their cornerbacks. It wasn’t just going to be Gareon Conley and someone else. Nope. It was going to be Conley, Marshon Lattimore and Denzel Ward, all rotating and sharing reps.
The goal? To prevent a repeat of last season, when Eli Apple and Conley each played an egregious number of snaps because there simply wasn’t anyone to capably play the position behind him. When Conley, who projects as a first-round pick in next April’s NFL draft, went down with a shoulder injury in the second quarter against Oklahoma, the inexperienced duo of Ward and Lattimore were forced to step up and play most of the game.
That was a big first test, and one that was passed with flying colors.
“Last year, those two corners played over 1,000 snaps by themselves,” Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said following the game against Oklahoma. “There was no rotation, so the depth of it, the development of it, what (cornerbacks coach Kerry) Coombs has done and everything is really giving us a lot of flexibility.
“We haven’t had that luxury in the past with some of those corners to try to rotate them. But we’ve got them and we’ve been doing it and we’ve had the fortune in the first couple of weeks. Not just that we weren’t doing it originally, but that we really had made a plan to do it and Coach Coombs made a plan to do it and he did a great job with it.”
That new luxury has afforded these three cornerbacks the chance to take a deep breath when they need it and go 100 miles an hour when they’re on the field.
“I would say, three games, right now they’re (Conley, Lattimore, Ward) around 40 (snaps) a game. I would assume we’re gonna be somewhere between 500 to 600 a piece. I hope. Maybe more. You know, we haven’t played that many snaps on defense. So we have games we play more, they’ll play more. As it is right now, it’s a third, a third, a third.”
Eventually, and ideally, it could even be more than three players rotating in. Coombs and the Ohio State coaching staff feels confident they have a fourth player that can and should be rotating in as well. That’s redshirt freshman Damon Arnette, a high school teammate of Nick Bosa’s at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale.
“I’d actually hope for Damon Arnette to play a little bit more,” Coombs said. “Of course he’s playing snaps at nickel, but he’s played corner and he’s going to play more. He’s a very capable player.”
Urban Meyer seemed to agree with that sentiment when asked about the rotation on Wednesday night.
“The nickel position is kind of a unique skill-set, and Damon Arnette kind of fits that skill-set,” Meyer said. “We spend a lot of time teaching that. You need to play at least three corners because we play so much man coverage. They all get plenty of playing time.”
Though rotating cornerbacks is rare, the Buckeyes are making it work so far this season and are working hard to get a handful of others involved in practice. The goal? Keeping everyone healthy.
“We’re managing the reps for all of those guys in exactly the same manner and I think that helps keep them fresh as well,” Coombs said. “We’ve got enough guys, between those four and the two freshman (Rodjay Burns and Jordan Fuller) and Josh Norwood, that we can roll guys through there in practice and stay fresh and healthy. The health of the corners is going to be critical to the way we play our defense.
The “a third, a third, a third” plan seems to be working out pretty well for the Buckeyes so far. The job is to make plays when your number is called. Safety Malik Hooker, who isn’t getting the break in reps the corners are, says he’s not surprised by what his teammates are accomplishing.
“We’ve got a saying in our facility, that’s competitive excellence,” Hooker said in Oklahoma. “When your number is called, they were ready to make the plays that they made out there. They came out there and did a hell of a job at it.”
When you’ve been as good as the “big three” have been at cornerback have been, it doesn’t matter who the starters are, that’s just for the record books, really. Play them all, let the numbers sort them out. Fickell and his defensive coaches don’t care who is out there and that’s perfectly fine.
“We have four corners that we believe in; for sure three guys that rotate,” Fickell said. “So who’s our starting corners? You’ve got three of them and that’s rare to have.”
The point is that right now, Ohio State has one heck of a luxury at cornerback, one that every team in the country would like to have.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had three the quality that we have right now,” Meyer said. “If we recruit well, I’d like to play four if we had four. Ideally, yes, every school in the country would say ‘yeah, let’s rotate guys if you have that quality of player.’ You can’t have a big dropoff to rotate, so there’s not much of dropoff and that’s worked pretty well. Kerry Coombs does such a good job of developing those guys.”
Three’s company and four would certainly be a welcomed crowd for Coombs and his cornerbacks but the Buckeyes assistant isn’t getting caught up in the discussion about how rare it is to rotate players at one of the game’s most vital positions.
“We rotate defensive lineman and nobody ever asks about it,” Coombs joked on Wednesday. “I know it’s unusual at our position, but it’s only (possible) because we’ve been able to recruit and develop some really, really talented kids.”