On April 27, Ohio State will watch its top cornerbacks from the 2016 season, Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley, learn their NFL destinations in the first round of the NFL draft.
But the task of replacing those corners was set in motion when the season ended.
The team has lost its top pair of corners, but cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said the position has the most depth he’s seen since his arrival at OSU in 2012.
“I’m extremely excited about the totality of the room,” Coombs said Wednesday.
He added that he is not sure exactly who will play. Junior Denzel Ward and redshirt sophomores Kendall Sheffield and Damon Arnette are all in the mix, as are sophomore Rodjay Burns and freshmen Shaun Wade, Jeffrey Okudah, Marcus Williamson and Amir Riep.
Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said he is unsure of how the younger corners will perform, and that while the team knows what to expect from of Sheffield, Ward and Arnette, there is an element of mystery with some of the younger players.
“There’s so many responses that we don’t know yet, because they haven’t been in that position with us,” Schiano said. “How will they respond when they get beat for a touchdown? How will they respond when they have an issue in class or an off-the-field issue that distracts them? Will they be able to come out here and block it out? Those are all things you learn about newcomers that we have to wait and see.”
The perk of having such depth at the position is that there does not always have to be a bonafide set of starters downfield. Last season, though Lattimore and Conley were deemed the starters, Ward frequently rotated in with the pair and, in the end, received nearly the same number of snaps as the two future first-round corners. Arnette, though he participated in fewer snaps compared with the other three, also found himself in on the action for much of the season.
The strategy of rotating the corners to keep all of them fresh for nearly the whole game proved successful. But Schiano said there is no guarantee the defense will use that same game plan next time, though he and the rest of the coaching staff would like to try it out.
“I could see that happening again this year, but it really depends on the development of our corners and how they do,” Schiano said. “We’re very, very hopeful between our incoming guys, between our guys who were here, that we will be able to have that rotation at the corner spot.”
One important piece to the cornerback puzzle will be the development of Sheffield, who was rated as the No. 1 junior college cornerback transfer by ESPN before landing at OSU, and was considered a five-star prospect before enrolling at Alabama and later Blinn Community College.
Sheffield was highly sought after by OSU out of high school, Coombs said, and that once Sheffield decided he was going to transfer from community college, the coaching staff knew they were going to push hard to add him to the team.
“As soon as I found out that he was becoming available again — I can’t remember exactly how, if it was internet or whatever – I reached out immediately,” Coombs said. “I began the process of recruiting him at Blinn right away really hard, and thankfully, he chose to become a Buckeye.”
The oldest of the newcomers, Sheffield brings in an element of experience that many of the younger cornerbacks lack. As a junior college transfer, he had time playing in game situations, and Schiano said the key for him will just be to get the hang of things the more he participates.
Freshmen might be counted on quite a bit in the defensive backfield in 2017 with no one player really standing above the rest of the pack.
If those four incoming freshman are going to find success, they will not only need to familiarize themselves with OSU’s defensive style, but also work on making the transition from pure athletes to specialists at their respective positions.
“In high school, you can get away with just being a great athlete. You can do it the way you’re coached, or maybe you can do it another way and still get away with it,” Schiano said. “Here, the people they’re going against are so good that if they don’t do it exactly the way they’re instructed, it’s hard to be successful.”