During the Urban Meyer era at Ohio State, no position on defense carried a bigger burden than the cornerbacks.
Ohio State played man-to-man coverage almost exclusively. A long line of corners made that scheme pay off on their way to becoming NFL first-round draft picks.
But the Buckeyes' cornerbacks didn’t play up to that standard last year, and that contributed to the defense’s well-documented woes. Damon Arnette and Jeff Okudah have heard about it for months.
“Redemption,” Okudah answered when asked about the cornerbacks’ mindset as training began on Friday. “Right now, I feel like our backs are against the wall.”
Okudah was solid last season as a sophomore and had a stellar Rose Bowl against Washington. A five-star recruit from Texas blessed with size, speed and instincts, Okudah is regarded as a likely first-round pick next spring if he enters the NFL draft.
But Okudah still doesn’t have an interception in his career and hasn’t made as many impact plays as he’d like. He said someone recently compared his first two seasons to those of Denzel Ward, who had a brilliant junior season before the Browns made him the fourth pick of the 2018 draft.
Okudah wants to make a similar progression.
“Now it's about taking that last step, and that’s staying consistent every single time and just becoming a lockdown cornerback,” he said.
As for Arnette, a fifth-year senior from Florida, his original plan was to be in the NFL right now despite a so-so season in 2018. After the Rose Bowl, he flew to Dallas, intent on finding an apartment to begin training for the NFL combine. Arnette arranged to return to Columbus just to retrieve his dog and his clothes.
But as he prepared for that trip, he got a call from former Buckeye and Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter, whom Arnette has known almost his entire life.
“He called me and just went off: ‘Man, you ain't no All-American,’” Arnette said. “Everything he was saying cut deep, but it was true. So when something cuts deep but it's true, you’ve got to evaluate what they’re saying. He wasn't the only person to say something. When somebody ain't the only person saying something, there’s got to be some truth.”
In Columbus, Arnette met with new secondary coach/co-coordinator Jeff Hafley and got a glimpse of his scheme. He decided to remain a Buckeye for a final season.
“Having the thoughts of leaving, the question was: Was I the best player I know I can be? Did I leave everything out there? And do I regret anything?
“And I couldn't check all those boxes. So then I was like, can you live with that? I realized I couldn’t. I felt like I'm not doing Buckeye Nation and my teammates a service if I would have left (after) last year.”
He said that his attitude has changed, starting with settling down in his life off the field.
“I've always just been an on-edge type of person,” Arnette said. “I just realized that that plan will get you burned a lot of different ways. It just isn’t worth it.”
Throughout spring practice, coaches and players raved about Arnette, who will graduate with a communications degree on Sunday. Now Arnette and Okudah are excited to work in the new scheme, which will incorporate zone defense as well as man-to-man.
“When you're able to mix it up, it makes it harder for offensive coordinators,” Okudah said.
It also should translate into more opportunities for interceptions because zone coverage will allow cornerbacks to read the quarterback’s eyes and break on the ball.
The Buckeyes hope the combination of the new scheme and the desire to atone for last season will be a potent combination.
“I think you're looking at some guys there who are hungry, who have built a relationship with Jeff Hafley, that believe in what he's teaching,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said Friday.
“Those guys had a great offseason with (strength coach) Mick (Marotti). They’ve gotten stronger, faster, quicker, and have put some time in to really master the techniques that Jeff is teaching. Even today, just watching them out there, they’re in a good place.”