Damon Arnette said he has thought about the alternate path he intended to take only once or twice this season. That’s all he could bear.
“I almost wanted to cry, just thinking about that,” Ohio State’s fifth-year senior cornerback said.
It’s no secret that Arnette had one foot out the door to the NFL after last season. Really, he had two feet out. He’d returned to Columbus after the Rose Bowl only to collect clothes and say goodbye before leaving to train for the NFL combine. But a few candid conversations and some soul-searching led Arnette to change his mind. His final season as a Buckeye has been a storybook one so far, even though he’s had to play through a broken wrist.
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Arnette is playing with a consistency that eluded him earlier in his career. He is an instrumental part of a transformed defense that has helped Ohio State to the No. 1 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings heading into a game Saturday against Maryland.
“I think it's so cool when you see somebody walk down a hallway saying, ‘The best decision I made was coming back,’” coach Ryan Day said. “To put the work in, then see all that stuff show up on the field — everything that he put in in the offseason on and off the field to get to where he is right now, but then also play at a high level, it's a success story, one of many here at Ohio State.”
That Arnette came to Ohio State at all was a matter largely of happenstance.
Arnette, the son of Damon Arnette Sr. and Montreana Surrell, played more receiver and linebacker in high school than cornerback. A three-star prospect out of powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Arnette originally committed to South Carolina.
Ohio State entered the picture late, and not necessarily favorably. When then-cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs visited Arnette, he challenged him after Arnette expressed resistance to playing on kickoff coverage.
“He was like, ‘If you're scared, don’t come,’” Arnette recalled, adding with a laugh, “And I didn’t like that.”
But Arnette knew of Ohio State’s history of developing cornerbacks for the NFL, and he felt a camaraderie when he visited, so a Buckeye he became. His first year on campus was spent rehabbing from surgery to fix a previously undetected bone chip on his tibia.
His redshirt freshman season, Arnette earned the nickel cornerback job in a loaded secondary, and his future appeared bright. But inconsistency and immaturity stunted his progress on and off the field.
“I just feel like everybody grows up and recognizes certain situations and knows how to handle them naturally better than others,” Arnette said, “and others have to go through the fire to learn, and I was definitely one of those type of learners.”
He believed that he turned the corner in the second half of the 2017 season. But Coombs then left for the Tennessee Titans. Arnette described Coombs’ successor, Taver Johnson, as a “great guy and great coach,” but things just didn’t click and the entire defense struggled last season.
It didn’t take until the end of the season for Arnette to start looking ahead to declaring for the NFL draft.
“After that spring, that summer, I knew in my head I was out,” Arnette said.
Even though the 2018 season wasn’t the springboard to the NFL that he hoped, Arnette’s mind remained all but made up after the Rose Bowl.
Three conversations in particular helped change his mind. The first was with Cris Carter, the former Buckeye and Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver. Carter and Damon’s father have been longtime friends. Damon Arnette Sr. was a star basketball player at Florida Atlantic and played professionally overseas.
Arnette Sr. befriended Carter when he trained at the football player’s facility. Carter later coached the younger Arnette at St. Thomas Aquinas.
Carter told Arnette Jr. to call him. He told Arnette he wasn’t ready for the NFL. He said he had unfinished business at Ohio State.
“And that’s the same thing my dad told me right after I spoke to (Carter),” Arnette said. “My dad basically confirmed everything Cris was telling me.”
Then came a talk with new secondary coach Jeff Hafley, who brought a new scheme to the Buckeyes.
“I told him what we could do for him,” Hafley said in August. “I told him what I think he needed. I didn’t sell him anything. I didn’t promise anything. I just told him the truth and then he made the decision to come back, and I’m glad he did.”
Arnette said he decided even before his conversation with Hafley was finished to come back, surprising even himself by the quick change of heart.
And it was a change of heart. Arnette acknowledged that the oft-spoken brotherhood the Buckeyes tout had been just a word to him. Now it’s reality.
“I didn’t always feel like this,” he said. “When I first heard, ‘Play for your brother, play for your brother,’ that's the feeling that they were talking about. And I didn't have that. Now that I'm all in and buying in to everything, I get that feeling. I'm able to turn the corner on certain relationships, and it's just a great feeling.”
Not even the wrist injury, suffered during training camp, has slowed him much. He had surgery this season and is playing with a cast, though it didn’t stop him from returning an interception 96 yards for a touchdown against Indiana.
“He’s just a different guy, a different demeanor,” senior safety Jordan Fuller said. “His whole approach to everything he does has changed. I can’t praise him enough for that.”
Arnette’s father beamed with pride talking about the growth in his son. He sees it as a steady progression with occasional missteps. Arnette graduated in the spring as a communications major.
“He has his hard exterior, playing with a broken wrist and everybody seeing him jawing with people that he's playing against,” Arnette Sr. said. “He looks like he's ready to chop someone's head off while he's out there playing. But he really has a big, caring heart.
“He’s bought into that brotherhood. He really truly loves his teammates.”
Day said he’s proud of the way Arnette has approached his final season.
“The strides he's taken the last year have been unbelievable,” he said. “It's all well-deserved because he put a lot into it.”