Only 11 teams gave up more passing plays of 40-plus yards than Ohio State did last season. The Buckeyes allowed 13 such plays, averaging one per game. It was the worst number in the Big Ten, and it’s more than Ohio State has allowed in over a decade. It may actually be the most they’ve ever allowed in a single season.
As such, the Buckeyes looked to the transfer portal for some reinforcements this season. Ohio State signed Syracuse transfer safety Ja’Had Carter and Ole Miss transfer cornerback Davison Igbinosun to help the secondary. Both were starters at their previous stops — Carter a three-year starter and Igbinosun a freshman starter a year ago.
Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles got a good look at both through one week of camp. Even though it was early, Knowles liked what he saw from Igbinosun after just one day of practice.
“Yeah, Davison looked good out there today,” Knowles said earlier this month. “Picking things up, but really just breaking on the ball. I liked his length. He has real length and got his hands on a lot of balls. And he was quick to mix it up, too. I joke with him all the time, he’s got that Jersey toughness, you know? And he’s got experience in the SEC, played a lot of football. I just think he’s gonna bring a lot of competition to the position.”
Junior Denzel Burke is the Buckeyes’ lone returning starter at the position, though fellow junior Jordan Hancock has starting experience, as does sophomore Jyaire Brown. Along with Igbinosun, the four of them will be counted on to keep the passes from finding their intended receivers.
With Carter, his role is still being worked out. And not because of what he can’t do, but because of everything he can do.
“He played both nickel and high safety. He has a lot of tools,” Knowles said on signing day. “So we’ll try him out in both areas. We’re gonna see where he fits best because I think he can help us for sure.”
The expectation is that Carter will compete with fourth-year junior Cameron Martinez for the open spot as the Buckeyes’ nickel safety. Bringing in transfers isn’t something the Ohio State normally does. They prefer to build the program through recruiting, but when they do go to the portal, they’re extremely selective.
“You know, it is a different age. Times are changing,” Knowles said. “I mean, I like the fact that we’re The Ohio State. We don’t participate in that arena very much. We’re not turning over 22 new guys or something. We can really be picky about the guys. And you’re talking about two starters at Power Five programs that now come in with experience. And I think they give us great competition there. That’s what we need in the back end, we need competition. We need guys fighting to play. We need guys competing against our offense, getting hands on balls.”
Ultimately, it was the defense that doomed the Buckeyes last year, especially when it came to allowing the big play. Last year was Knowles’ first at Ohio State, and having taken over several other defenses before, he knows there is a process. Nothing happens overnight, but the portal can help get things done sooner than they otherwise might have gotten done.
“The next step and evolution of this defense really starts in the back end,” Knowles said. “We all know deep last year how things went and everywhere I’ve been it’s kind of taken me time to get the back end up to having that confidence to compete. And you bring in two guys like that, it just pushes the [rest of the group]. The other guys see it, and they walk right in and they’re mature. And they’re not messing around. They’re not a young guy coming in who’s kind of feeling [things out]. These guys aren’t messing around. And it pushes everyone.”
But it’s not just about finding mercenaries looking for a new team. It’s still about finding the right players for this Ohio State football program. And according to Knowles, they’ve done that with Davison Igbinosun and Ja’Had Carter.
“You want guys who still want to be part of the team, and they’re both like that,” he said. “When we interview them, that’s exactly what we’re interviewing for. Maturity, for fit, can they be a great teammate? And those guys have that.”