Cornerbacks confident their best is yet to come

Bill Rabinowitz
Ohio State cornerback Damon Arnette bats away a pass intended Indiana's Donavan Hale on Saturday. Arnette acknowledged the cornerbacks haven't reached their potential this season, but "We’re getting better every day." [Eric Albrecht/Dispatch]

They know the standard. The standard extends beyond excellence.

For the past few years, a parade of Ohio State cornerbacks have blossomed into stars and first-round NFL draft picks. Eli Apple, Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley and Denzel Ward have taken that path.

That’s what makes the struggles of the Buckeyes’ cornerbacks and the pass defense in general this year so glaring. The talent is there. The production has been spotty.

“We’re definitely not to our potential yet,” said junior Damon Arnette, who rotates with sophomore Jeffrey Okudah and junior Kendall Sheffield. “We’ve still got faith in our talent and our coaching. We’re getting better every day. There are just little things we have to adjust to play better.”

The biggest issue the cornerbacks have had is defending the deep pass. Sometimes, they’ve been victimized by circus catches, like the one-handed reception by Penn State’s Juwon Johnson against Arnette.

Buckeyes defensive backs have generally been in solid position to make plays. But too often, they’ve lost those so-called jump balls to the receiver or been called for pass interference or holding. Arnette acknowledges that he can be too “handsy” at times.

“It’s just a matter of how long your hand is in there,” he said. “The longer you’re on them, the riskier it is being caught.”

Some Buckeyes fans question the philosophy of coaching defensive backs not to turn their head toward the ball unless they are right with the receiver. If defenders get behind the receiver, they are coached to swat at the receivers’ wrist to knock away the ball.

Asked why the strategy isn’t to always look back for the ball, cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson said, “The downside is if you look too soon, you’re going to slow down and then the guy can run away from you.”

Refs have tended to be more lenient with defenders who are looking back for the ball while they jostle with receivers, but Johnson said he’s not sure that is true anymore.

“I thought so, but we’ve had instances where guys have gotten their head back and for whatever reason the flag has still come out,” said Johnson, who returned as OSU’s cornerbacks coach after leaving that job in 2011.

Ohio State’s philosophy is to challenge almost every pass. Press man-to-man coverage is the foundation of its pass defense. The occasional big play or pass interference call is the price they have to pay.

“The risk/reward on that — once you get great at that, you’re playing great defense,” coach Urban Meyer said.

They’re not great at that yet. Asked if he was satisfied with how his players have defended the deep pass this year, Johnson replied, “No. I don’t think any of us are.”

But the Buckeyes have faith they can become proficient at it.

“I see it every day — flashes of greatness,” Arnette said. “The main thing is transferring it to Saturdays. The main thing is looking back for the ball and taking the ball out of the air. I feel that’s the final step (for) our greatness.

“We’re getting better every day, and I feel you guys will definitely see an improvement in the games going forward.”

Arnette said there is pressure playing cornerback at Ohio State — because of both the demands of playing in such an aggressive scheme and the high bar set by former players.

“If you focus on that, you’re not going to be able to play to the first-round standard that’s expected,” Arnette said. “They wouldn’t have the standard for the group of guys we have now if they didn’t know we were capable of meeting that standard.”


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