Following a season where the Ohio State secondary was the scene of more big plays than Broadway, no assumptions can be made about depth charts and lineups as the Buckeyes head into spring camp.
Rising junior Denzel Burke is the only starting cornerback returning for the Ohio State defense, but he is also one of three returning corners with starting experience. Last season, five different corners started at least one game. One of those five was JK Johnson, who hit the transfer portal following the season.
The season had its ups and downs for the cornerbacks. One of those corners was Burke, who got off to a slow start but played better as the season went on. Consistency was difficult to find because injuries ran through the position all season long.
Those injuries then hampered the Buckeyes’ development at the position.
“It does. You get better by reps and playing time and practice time,” said cornerbacks coach Tim Walton. “You get better. So if you miss a lot of time, it’ll stunt your growth a little bit. So then now we gotta go back and try to escalate it. But it is what it is. You’ve got to kind of deal with the situation and you got to go with it. And that’s why you always have to get that next guy ready.”
One of those guys who got ready quickly last year was true freshman Jyaire Brown. He got a start against Wisconsin alongside backup Jordan Hancock because both starters were out. Brown played well and proved to be a valuable reserve. Now he and Hancock will be part of the spring competition for a starting spot.
Joining Burke, Brown, and Hancock will be redshirt freshman Ryan Turner, true freshman Jermaine Mathews, and Ole Miss transfer Davison Igbinosun. Given how last year went, there is no point in slow-playing anybody this spring. Everybody will get reps.
“That’s why you recruit,” Walton said. “That’s why you try to get the depth in the room. And then prepare guys because some things you can’t control, and you’ve got to deal with the uncontrollables. Going into the season each year, you don’t know how many games a guy is going to play. You don’t know if a nick or a bruise is going to keep him out of certain situations. So you just have to try to develop them all. [Injuries] do set you back some when you’re young, but you have to have the next guy up and then have to have those guys ready to fight back through it.”
Part of that recruiting is also going into the transfer portal, which the Buckeyes did with Igbinosun. He gives the cornerback room four guys with starting experience, and none of those four want to be relegated back to the bench.
“You bring in guys to always compete and elevate the room,” Walton explained. “Some guys may beat some guys out. That’s a part of this thing too. That’s the thing. Just because you were a starter a year ago doesn’t mean it’s gonna be [the same] this year. Just because you were a backup [last year], this year doesn’t mean you’re gonna stay in that role. Roles are always constantly changing. And that’s on the development, the growth and the accountability that we all have. So that will all evolve on a daily, weekly, monthly basis.”
The Buckeyes are expected to be healthy this spring at cornerback, which is great news for Walton, though he’s probably not counting his chickens just yet. But what he will be counting is reps, snaps, opportunities, and the like. There are six scholarship cornerbacks on the roster this spring who have all been recruited to be starters. And even though Denzel Burke is a returning starter, no jobs have been handed out just yet.
“No real pecking order now,” Walton said. “Denzel is really the only true returning starter that we have right now. What we’ve got to do now is we got to create competition. We’ve gotta open this thing up. Let guys go earn jobs and go play and go compete. That’s what it’s about. So we’ll try to make sure we move guys around, because we’ve got to make sure they’re in the right spot and we’ve got to make sure the competition is right and guys are in the right spot with stuff. So that’s what we’ll try to take a look at this spring.”