Ohio State spring football: Secondary depth will be tested, possibly requiring philosophy shift

Joey Kaufman
Besides being one of Ohio State’s best cover cornerbacks, tying for second on the team with eight pass breakups, Shaun Wade also made his presence felt as a pass rusher, including here against Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder. [Joshua A. Bickel]

As Ohio State opens spring football practice next week, The Dispatch will preview each position group. Today: Defensive backs.

Returnees: CB Sevyn Banks, junior; CB Cameron Brown, junior; S Ronnie Hickman, redshirt freshman; S Marcus Hooker, redshirt sophomore; CB Tyreke Johnson, redshirt sophomore; S Josh Proctor, junior; S Bryson Shaw, redshirt freshman; CB Shaun Wade, redshirt junior; CB Marcus Williamson, senior

Departures: Damon Arnette, Jordan Fuller, Jeff Okudah, Amir Riep, Jahsen Wint

Early-enrollee freshmen: CB Lejond Cavazos, CB Ryan Watts, S Kourt Williams

Summer-enrollee freshmen: S Cameron Martinez, S Lathan Ransom

The return of assistant coach Kerry Coombs will mean a few changes for Ohio State’s secondary, starting in spring practice.

Coombs, a former cornerbacks coach for the Buckeyes who takes over as defensive coordinator, plans to use more press-man coverage than his predecessor.

Last fall, the Buckeyes featured more zone coverage in their single-high safety base defense coordinated by Jeff Hafley, who left after the season to become head coach at Boston College.

Another shift in philosophy comes with player substitution. Coombs favors rotating cornerbacks, as he did in his previous stint at Ohio State.

“They gotta be good enough to play,” he said. “The performance of the unit cannot go down when they go on the field. So you can’t say, ‘We’re just playing them to play them.’ They’ve gotta be capable, confident players. But I have every expectation of playing a lot of guys in the back end.”

That means the Buckeyes will need to uncover quite a few cornerbacks who belong in the rotation to follow this script. And they’re already replacing their starting outside corners, as Damon Arnette and Jeff Okudah are off to the NFL.

To start with, they plan to slide Shaun Wade from slot corner to one of the outside corner spots. Otherwise, though, OSU has only four other returning scholarship cornerbacks to plug into two more starting spots — another at outside corner and at slot corner.

One of the candidates, Amir Riep, was dismissed from the team earlier this month after he was arrested and later indicted on charges of rape and kidnapping.

Riep helped fill in when an injured Wade was sidelined during the Buckeyes’ win at Michigan and picked off a pass in the second half.

Marcus Williamson also backed up Wade as a slot corner last season and will be counted on more as a senior. He was also someone who was originally recruited out of high school by Coombs.

Cameron Brown figures to be a leading candidate to take one of the cornerback spots. He saw the most snaps last season behind the starting trio of Arnette, Okudah and Wade.

But the lack of depth could mean the Buckeyes look to incorporate their early-enrollee cornerbacks more prominently into the rotation. Both Lejond Cavazos and Ryan Watts, four-star recruits in high school, will participate in spring practice in the coming weeks.

If there isn’t enough depth at three cornerback spots, a few tweaks might be in order. They might need to use two safeties rather than lean on a single-high safety, which is the preferred look by coach Ryan Day.

But Day hinted the Buckeyes might need to be more flexible come fall.

“We definitely can get to a two-high look and we will,” he said last month. “We’re going to diversify a little bit more this year.”

Spring will be their first chance to begin sorting it out.


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