Ohio State’s inexperienced secondary exceeded all expectations during the 2016 football season. All one has to do is look at the success in pass defense — in terms of interceptions, passes defended and passing yards allowed — to understand why OSU has both starting cornerbacks and its best overall player at safety projected as possible first-round picks.
Dominance from cornerback Gareon Conley was seen as a possibility before the season. But the emergence of Marshon Lattimore opposite Conley was not as anticipated. Now, both are gone and the Buckeyes will have to reload.
They certainly have the class to do that.
OSU coach Urban Meyer snagged the top two cornerbacks in the 2017 recruiting class, according to recruiting site 247Sports, in freshmen Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade who have already enrolled.
To add to that, Alabama transfer and the No. 1 junior college cornerback Kendall Sheffield will also join the Buckeyes in 2017. Okudah, Wade and Sheffield are all in contention to start at cornerback next year, and all will participate in spring practice which begins March 7. Sheffield is expected to join the program that month.
“When me and Jeff (Okudah) talked, we said we are going to push each other no matter who starts or who plays over each other, we are going to push each other,” Wade said on National Signing Day. “That’s really the only thing we were talking about.”
The OSU secondary intercepted 21 passes and returned a school-record seven for touchdowns. Conley and Lattimore each had four interceptions while safety Malik Hooker reeled in seven, including three touchdowns. The first-year starting safety was the most athletic of the bunch and will be difficult to replace.
It’s probably too much to ask of the four freshmen cornerbacks in the 2017 class — which includes four-star, early-enrollee Marcus Williamson — or the current cornerbacks, junior Denzel Ward and redshirt sophomore Damon Arnette, to duplicate the numbers that Lattimore and Conley produced. But that’s not saying that expectation isn’t there.
“We’ve only been here for a month, so we haven’t gotten a chance to feel the expectations but we know what the expectations are,” Okudah said. “With the class like the one we brought in, it’s the highest expectation and that’s to win a national championship.”
For beginners, Okudah, Wade and Sheffield — all of which were former five-star recruits — possess the size of Conley, Lattimore and former OSU and New York Giants cornerback Eli Apple. Standing at 6-foot or taller, each of the three already fit into that mold that has become a breeding ground for NFL cornerbacks.
That being said, Conley, Lattimore and Apple all redshirted their first seasons in Columbus. It’s not unprecedented for freshman to start at OSU, but to have an opportunity to play immediately for not one, but three players at one position — a chance that often isn’t presented to even the most heralded OSU recruits — is a rarity. However, that’s an even greater tribute to the talent, confidence and maturity the newcomers have before being with the program for a full month.
Meyer said that immediate assistance will come in the defensive backfield.
“I see those guys (helping),” he said. “We targeted those guys from day one, and we got the three primary guys.”