There are a few lasting memories of last season for Ohio State and Buckeye fans, and unfortunately too many of them involved the defense giving up big plays.
For instance, only Vanderbilt, West Virginia, and Miami (FL) allowed more pass plays of 40 or more yards than Ohio State’s 13 last year.
The Buckeyes finished 68th in the nation in pass efficiency defense in 2022, starting five different cornerbacks due to injury during the course of the season. This year, three of those cornerbacks return, as do three of the five safeties who made starts last season.
The returning experience and the addition of a pair from the transfer portal has improved the overall group, and having the bulk of them in the same defense for a second year in a row is already paying dividends.
“I think we’ve made great strides in the secondary,” head coach Ryan Day said on Wednesday.
The Buckeyes return juniors Denzel Burke and Jordan Hancock at cornerback, and have added Davison Igbinosun from Ole Miss. Sophomore Jyaire Brown has been in the two deep for much of his career, and also got some time at nickel this spring in place of graduated starter Tanner McCalister. True freshman Jermaine Mathews and redshirt freshman Ryan Turner have also made some plays.
“Been very impressed with our corners,” Day said. “I think Denzel is playing his best football right now. I’m just impressed with his offseason. Impressed with his approach every day. Got his hands on a lot of balls. Had a huge interception in the two-minute drill the other day. Jordan Hancock is now with a full offseason, and now that he’s healthy, you’re starting to see his potential pop. He came off of that really bad hamstring injury and never was quite himself last year. He’s somebody that we’ve got a lot of excitement around.”
The Buckeyes lost starter Cameron Brown to graduation, and part-time starter JK Johnson jumped into the transfer portal. Ohio State didn’t stand pat, however, and they continue to develop the youth.
“Davison has been a great addition. It’s been great to see him out there and competing,” Day said. “I think he’s raising the level of everybody in that room. Jyaire Brown has played a little nickel and corner. He has just natural talent and instincts. Jermaine has been out there. Ryan Turner. So I mean, we’re starting to get a group in there that [cornerbacks coach] Tim [Walton] has been able to now spend year two with, and I think the addition of Davison and now that year of experience in that group, you’re seeing their hands on a lot more balls and challenging throws, which is really exciting.”
The fact that the majority of the defenders in the secondary are no longer learning the defense cannot be overstated. The experience among the defensive backs makes them faster, which has resulted in a good number of pass breakups this spring.
The number of big plays has also been limited because the last line of defense has stepped it up as well. Safeties Lathan Ransom, Josh Proctor, and Sonny Styles have played well, while nickel backs Cameron Martinez and Syracuse transfer Ja’Had Carter have impressed in the slot.
“The safety position has been much more solid,” Day said. “Lathan and Proc and Sonny and some of the guys back there have done a nice job. Ja’Had Carter, who was playing well, but about midway through had a little bit of injury. I don’t know whether he’s going to be available or not on Saturday, but up until that point, he had kind of raised the level of everybody back there.”
There are still plenty of questions about the 2023 edition of the Ohio State football team. Can they find five offensive linemen they trust? Will a quarterback emerge? Will injuries once again take their toll?
Any questions about the secondary, however, are being answered in a positive manner.
“It’s year two in this system, more experience, and a couple added pieces,” Day said. “I’ve been encouraged.”