Ohio State CB Denzel Burke remains confident bouncing back from slow start to season

Joey Kaufman
The Columbus Dispatch

Denzel Burke was unfazed by a slow start.

Though the first weeks of his season were mired by slip-ups in pass coverage that drew heavy scrutiny, he remained as confident as last fall when he broke out as a freshman in Ohio State’s secondary.

“I believe in myself,” Burke said, “and I play for an audience of one. I have a strong mindset. I know what I can do for this team.”

Injuries were behind the cornerback’s early ups and downs. The most significant one came in preseason training camp when he hurt his shoulder, sidelining him for two weeks of practices and cutting down on his opportunities to ramp up for the start of the season.  

“The way you practice is the way you’re going to play on Saturdays,” Burke said. “I didn’t have the most reps. I had the least amount of reps in the whole corner room throughout fall camp and the offseason.”

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What injuries taught Denzel Burke this season

The setback gave him a greater appreciation of practicing and preparing for each week’s game rather than leaving any bitterness about missing any time.

“It’s part of the game,” Burke said, “and I just have to have a strong mind, keep going forward and control the things I can control.”

He also suffered a hand injury in September. As he batted away a pass in a practice, it split a joint on his right hand.

Three days before the Buckeyes opened their Big Ten schedule against Wisconsin on Sept. 24, he underwent a procedure to repair it and attempted to play against the Badgers.

Burke wore a club on his right hand and warmed up before kickoff of OSU's conference opener, looking to support an already thin position group that has been impacted by various injuries, but he found it too painful and was held out as a result.  

“I love this team,” he said. “They depend on me. They trust me. So I went out there to the best of my ability to play with a club on. I just couldn’t do it.”

Ohio State cornerback Denzel Burke tackles Penn State wide receiver Parker Washington (3) during the first half of the Buckeyes' 44-31 win over the Nittany Lions.

He returned for the following week’s game against Rutgers and has continued managing the injury in practices.

“Throughout the week, you have to try new things with the shoulder and hand coming down the ball, things like that,” he said. “You really have to find your way.”

Burke has bounced back. In his last three games, he’s given up four receptions on the eight times he’s been targeted in coverage, but they have combined for a mere 24 yards, according to data from Pro Football Focus. None resulted in touchdowns.

The big plays or scores allowed in the opening weeks have faded into the background.

In Burke’s eyes, his turnaround is owed to his recovery. Not only because he’s moving closer to full strength, but it’s allowed him to practice on a more frequent basis.  

Buckeyes coach Ryan Day offered a similar assessment earlier this week, pointing to the benefits of the sophomore practicing consistently over the last month.

“When you have an injury that takes you out for a little while,” Day said, “you have to get yourself back into playing shape. I think he’s doing that. His feet are moving well. He’s covering. And now he has six games or so (seven) under his belt playing in the system.

“So when you add all those things up, you’re starting to see him play better.”

Denzel Burke turnaround coming at perfect time for Ohio State

His improvement comes as Ohio State moves into the stretch run of its season that includes a pair of road games in two out of the next three weeks, including Saturday’s game at Northwestern, followed by the regular-season finale against Michigan.

The matchup with the unbeaten Wolverines looms large considering the stakes of the rivalry as well as serving as a springboard toward making the College Football Playoff.

The Game was not far from Burke’s mind following practice on Wednesday.

As he looked back on Ohio State’s comeback win at Penn State, he thought he and his teammates benefited from being pushed by the Nittany Lions.

“I feel like this is the first game where we’ve actually been challenged,” he said. “Penn State’s a good team.”

The Nittany Lions are the lone team the Buckeyes have faced that is currently ranked.

“We needed that,” he said, “because the real challenge is going to come in about three weeks with the ‘team up north.’ We got that down.”

Joey Kaufman covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at or on Twitter @joeyrkaufman

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