OSU football questions: Can cornerback play return to the Buckeye standard?
Editor’s note: This is the ninth in a series of stories looking at the 10 most pressing questions facing Ohio State football as it prepares for the 2021 season.
Today, Part 9: Will the cornerback play return to Ohio State standards?
Kerry Coombs has been known to give expansive answers in interviews.
To the biggest question regarding Ohio State cornerbacks this year, the Buckeyes’ defensive coordinator needed only one word.
Ohio State has relied on press, man-to-man coverage in recent years. With two cornerbacks coming off injuries and young players behind him, Coombs was asked how confident he was that the Buckeyes could flourish with that philosophy this year.
“Very,” he replied.
Before taking over as defensive coordinator after two years with the Tennessee Titans, Coombs was the Buckeyes cornerbacks coach under Urban Meyer. He recruited and/or developed a remarkable number of star cornerbacks. Bradley Roby, Eli Apple, Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley, Denzel Ward, Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette all became first-round NFL draft picks.
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But last year’s cornerback play was not up to that lofty standard, contributing to a pass defense that ranked 122nd out of 127 teams a year ago.
Shaun Wade was expected to be a lockdown corner, only to have an up-and-down year. After the season, Wade revealed that he fought through several injuries.
“Shaun Wade played in tough, physical spots last year, and all he wanted to do is win a championship,” Coombs said. “I give him credit for that.”
Coombs noted that many top players opted out of the season to prepare for the NFL draft.
“This kid showed up every day and fought his butt off to help the team win,” he said. “We owe Shaun Wade.”
Now it’s crucial for others to emerge. Senior Sevyn Banks and junior Cam Brown are the projected starters at the outside spots with fifth-year senior Marcus Williamson as the nickel position. Banks and Brown missed spring practice because of injury. Banks had surgery on an unspecified injury. Brown tore his Achilles against Penn State last season.
Coach Ryan Day said at Big Ten media days that both are healthy for training camp, which starts Wednesday.
Coombs has relinquished serving as defensive backs coach as Matt Barnes takes over that role, but he will still have a strong presence with that group. He believes Banks and Brown have the ability to be the latest in the line of Buckeye standouts.
“I will tell you that Sevyn Banks in press, man(-to-man) situations was a very, very effective corner,” he said, “so I'm excited for him to increase and improve his productivity, and I think he will.”
Coombs said he is pleased with how both Banks and Brown have rehabbed from their injuries.
“Watching (Brown) run (Thursday), he was running fast, and I was excited to see that,” he said.
Coombs said Brown’s speed is his top attribute.
“And he is quick-twitch fast,” he said. “He's got to maximize his God-given gifts in his coverage. But he is twitchy and he's fast and he's going to compete, and that's exciting.”
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Williamson gives the Buckeyes another veteran, but competition for all spots will be fierce. Ohio State has a multitude of four-star youngsters battling for playing time. Lathan Ransom impressed in spot duty as a true freshman last year. Ryan Watts, Lejond Cavazos and Cam Martinez also have much promise, though the COVID-affected 2020 season deprived them of typical opportunity.
“That's the stuff that you missed last year — just the day-in and day-out development,” Coombs said. “These guys have been through a season, so at least they know what it looks like, and now they're getting the full-blown development, and they're going to compete.
Add in 2021 recruits Jordan Hancock, Denzel Burke and Jakailin Johnson, and competition will be intense.
Coombs said that covering Ohio State’s receivers, perhaps the best group in the country, will only intensify that.
“That's Ohio State football,” Coombs said. “That's Marshawn covering Michael Thomas. That’s Denzel covering Terry McLaurin. That’s what it's supposed to be every day, and so you get sharpened really, really quickly at the corner position at Ohio State.”
Soon enough, we’ll find out if that pays off for this year’s cornerbacks.
“I'm excited about them,” Coombs said. “I really am. I get it. I get last year (and the struggles). But I'm excited.”
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