Jaylen McClain Ohio State Buckeyes Safety

‘Dominant’ Buckeyes Secondary Steals the Show at Spring Game

Throughout the spring, Ohio State’s social media team shared videos of practice, often with eyebrow-raising catches and awe-inspiring displays of athleticism from the Buckeye offense.

Whether it was Jeremiah Smith’s one-handed grab in the end zone or Devin Brown’s spiral to Jayden Ballard, the Buckeye offense had its fair share of attention during spring practice, perhaps signaling an edge over the secondary and defense.

But the Silver Bullet defense led by the better-known ‘Best in America’ secondary stepped up Saturday at the ‘Shoe picking off Ohio State quarterbacks four times. It kept the receivers from many explosive plays, and despite the Buckeye offense leading Team Scarlet to a 34-33 edge over the defense and Team Gray, cornerback Denzel Burke beamed with confidence after the spring game.

“We definitely won,” Burke said. “I know y’all see the little highlight tapes of little clips of practice and it always just shows the receivers winning. But the majority of spring ball, BIA, we’re dominant. And we were dominant today.”

Two cornerbacks — Diante Griffin and Calvin Simpson-Hunt — and two safeties — Brenten “Inky” Jones and Jaylen McClain — had interceptions while Ohio State’s secondary defended the Buckeye offense that produced 357 yards through the air on 40-for-63 completions and one touchdown.

Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said he thinks it has become an expectation that the Buckeyes hold it down in the back end. Ohio State finished last season with the top passing defense in college football holding opponents to 145.9 yards per game, and Knowles thinks that just may become “a standard.”

“I think it was 96th when I got here and it was No. 1 last year, so they’ve taken that spirit,” Knowles said. “It’s a competitive spirit. It’s an expectation now. It doesn’t matter who we’re going against.”

Head coach Ryan Day believes Ohio State has its deepest and most talented cornerback room of his tenure.

Familiar starters Burke and junior Davison Igbinosun trotted out onto the field in the early goings, then Day and the Buckeyes rolled out their depth. Jones totaled seven tackles, second-most on the day, while freshman Aaron Scott Jr. led the team with two pass break-ups in addition to batted passes from Griffin, Igbinosun, freshman Miles Lockhart and sophomore Jermaine Mathews.

The Buckeyes were even without multiple contributors in the secondary on Saturday. Senior safety Ja’Had Carter, sophomore safety Malik Hartford, rising fifth-year safety Lathan Ransom and senior cornerback Lorenzo Styles Jr. all were unavailable due to injury. Even when Ohio State isn’t at its top all-around, that doesn’t mean Day isn’t seeing where his strengths are shining through.

“For me to say that — the best we’ve seen at all positions — no, I don’t think we’re there,” Day said. “But at corner, and maybe at a couple other positions. And then some other positions we’ve got to solidify a little better.”

Simpson-Hunt was one player who took advantage of early opportunities Saturday to make a splash. After appearing in the final five games last season and redshirting, Simpson-Hunt snagged the first interception of the spring game in the second quarter.

He wrapped up four tackles, all solo, and it was a performance that pleased Knowles.

“He’s one of those guys that just competes every day, doesn’t say much,” Knowles said. “He’s trying to live up to the standard of the other guys, and you see him coming along. You see him step by step coming along and (you) put him in a competitive atmosphere, see him step up. That’s a great sign.”

Don’t forget about sophomore safety Caleb Downs, who recorded two tackles in some of his first game-like reps at Ohio Stadium. While he may not have made a jump-off-the-page play or takeaway Saturday, Downs is expected to provide the Buckeyes with a boost after his Freshman All-America campaign last fall.

Burke said he saw his teammates at quarterback, receiver, and along the offensive line during the spring become “a lot more comfortable” while “they’re making plays and getting us better,” which he said is what the Buckeye defensive backs want.

The regular season is still more than four months away. Ohio State’s secondary reloaded ahead of the 2024 season, and Burke said he and the Buckeyes are “really excited for what we have to offer” come time for the real thing Aug. 31 against Akron.

“We’re going to be amazing,” Burke said. “We have a lot of new installs, a lot of new fronts and looks. A lot of guys moving around. Might have four or five DBs on the field and a lot of different looks, man. I’m really excited for what we’re going to do. We’re going to dictate what the offense can do this year.”

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