Entering the 2015 season with a new jersey number and attitude, redshirt sophomore cornerback Gareon Conley is starting to gain recognition as one of the most improved players on the Ohio State roster.
That did not seem likely after last year’s game against Michigan State.
Conley, who was making his first career start, was quickly benched in favor of the injured Eli Apple — who Conley was originally playing in place of — when Spartans wide receiver Keith Mumphery had two catches for 69 yards and a touchdown on their first offensive possession.
It was his first big chance to shine, but he let it slip away, which haunted the young corner.
“I felt down in the dumps,” Conley said. “I just kept thinking about it over and over again, and that just led to more bad plays.”
Although that game was not the start to his career he imagined, it proved to be valuable.
His poor performance made him realize that a change to his preparation was necessary.
“I felt like that Michigan State game, honestly, it took my confidence away,” Conley said. “I was just thinking about other things and I just felt like, when I thought about my teammates more than myself that’s what made me take it more serious and prepare more because I wanted to do it for them more than I wanted to do it for me.”
That new preparation, which Conley honed in on during spring practice, has made a difference in his performance, especially the home opener against Hawaii.
Conley had his first career interception, and he said he believes now, this is only the start of what is to come.
“That was like one of the happiest moments of my life. It was just, the adrenaline rush I had, and when all my teammates came like, tackling me when I made the play,” Conley said. “It was just like the best thing ever.”
The feeling in that moment for Conley, compared to getting benched in East Lansing, Michigan, is “just the total opposite.”
During Monday’s press conference, OSU coach Urban Meyer was effusive in his praise for the redshirt sophomore.
“We all saw it coming. He was just a little undersized when he first got here,” Meyer said. “He’s a guy, it’s interesting, I made a point to our team probably about a thousand times, but every guy I called up that’s playing well does things right on and off the field, academically.”
But those in the program with more intimate knowledge of Conley’s talents have long-predicted his arrival.
At the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago on July 30, senior linebacker Joshua Perry predicted big things from Conley.
“But that kid, the way he’s worked this summer and some of the things he’s been through in his development right now is huge,” Perry said.
Conley’s development almost did not happen in Columbus.
Initially, the Massillon, Ohio, native was committed to Michigan. However when cornerbacks coach and special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs arrived in 2013, he stumbled across Conley’s tape.
“I only had the job a short period of time and I went (to former defensive line coach Mike Vrabel) and said, ‘We gotta get this kid. This kid’s gotta be a Buckeye,’” Coombs said.
Coombs added that they contacted Conley to gauge his interest in playing for the Scarlet and Gray.
“From that point, it was over,” Coombs said.
Conley said he has always been receptive to Coombs and his approach.
“He’s probably the most positive coach I have ever had,” Conley said. “I mean, he’s always going to tell you when you’re doing bad, or what you’re doing wrong, but that’s what you need.”
For Conley, who figures to be relied on more heavily than he was in 2014, he knows his improved preparation is going to be important for the Buckeyes to be successful. When asked about his growth since last year’s Michigan State game, Conley expressed a renewed sense of resiliency.
“It’s just the total opposite of each other … like I know I can never get that play back, but I just kept thinking about it over and over again and that just led to more bad plays and I know now, because I am probably going to have bad plays in the games or so because nobody’s perfect,” Conley said. “I just know after every bad play, you got a snap and clear and play the next play.”
For an OSU team that has big shoes to fill at cornerback with Doran Grant leaving for the NFL after last season, Conley has been able to play a key role so far in solidifying the Buckeyes’ secondary.
Conley will look to keep up his strong start when OSU takes on Northern Illinois on Saturday at Ohio Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m.
Kevin Stankiewicz contributed to this story.