Ohio State cornerback Damon Arnette knew he made the right decision to return for his senior season when he emerged from the tunnel for warmups before the season opener against Florida Atlantic.
“I looked around and saw everybody I wanted to be here with,” Arnette said.
It has been a charmed start through three weeks.
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In the Buckeyes’ win Saturday at Indiana, Arnette intercepted a pass by quarterback Peyton Ramsey and returned it 96 yards for a touchdown. It was the fifth-longest return in Ohio State history.
For about the final 20 yards, Arnette strutted toward the end zone with five of his teammates following him in celebration.
“It’s the biggest play I've made in my life,” Arnette said this week.
Coach Ryan Day said he was running down the sideline with him too.
The enthusiasm was appreciated.
“It's motivating,” Arnette said, “because you want to do it again and make them hyped again.”
He made several other big plays against the Hoosiers, including breaking up a pair of passes. While targeted nine times in pass coverage, Arnette allowed only three completions, according to data collected by Pro Football Focus, his stingiest performance this season.
As Ohio State allowed a school-worst 25.5 points per game last season, Arnette caught flak from fans.
The Buckeyes ranked No. 86 in the nation in pass defense, and Arnette allowed completions 67.4 percent of the time he was targeted, according to Pro Football Focus, compared with 50 percent in the three games this season.
Other statistics also declined from his sophomore to junior seasons. After two interceptions and eight pass breakups in 2017, Arnette intercepted one pass and broke up six last season.
Arnette didn’t mind the criticism. He seems to appreciate demanding fans.
“I know how Buckeye Nation is, for real,” Arnette said. “There's love, there's hate. They want greatness. They can be mean sometimes, but I can be mean too.”
After putting off entering the NFL draft, Arnette benefited from the arrival of Jeff Hafley, hired as Buckeyes secondary coach along with serving as the defensive co-coordinator.
Hafley, who also helped persuade Arnette to remain in school, spent the previous seven seasons as an assistant in the NFL, where he primarily coached defensive backs.
His arrival helped Arnette better line up and prepare for offenses before the snap.
“When you can recognize formations when they come out,” Arnette said, “it slows everything down.”
Arnette added, “People might be moving fast, but I’m seeing it in slow motion. I’m just able to lock in on what I need to be doing and not worry about a lot of things around me. And that’s what I feel like everybody’s doing a better job of, is just locking in on their job. And when everybody’s locking in on their job, somebody’s going to make the play.”
When he intercepted Ramsey, Arnette said he benefited from the performance of the defensive line and other defenders who pressured the quarterback.
“The D-line was locked in on rushing the quarterback, and I know he had to get it out of his hands quick, so it was really a big team play,” Arnette said. “You saw everybody running to the end zone with me.”
Arnette isn't surprised by his start. He said he expected improvement in his final season in college and envisioned this type of performance, eager for a big final season.
“Everything that is happening right now, I saw happening when I decided to come back to school,” he said. “So y'all are just seeing it right now. It's going to keep getting bigger because we got some more stuff to do.”