Could true freshman Jeffrey Okudah find his way into the rotation at cornerback this season?
Photo by Caroline Rice
The 2016 season did not end the way the Ohio State Buckeyes wanted it to, but for the first time since his arrival in 2012, cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs finally achieved one of his most pie-in-the-sky goals by having a full-time and constant rotation of more than two cornerbacks.
There is no doubting that Coombs would happily throw the rotation out the window if it would bring back another national title, but in reality, the best way to regain that title is by continuing to vie for that rotational pie in the sky.
Urban Meyer and his entire coaching staff saw the benefits of having three starters at such a physically-demanding position, and the intention is to do it all over again this year.
"Yeah, I think the way we play defense, we’d like to do that," Meyer said last week after the first day of spring practice. "Obviously, we have Damon Arnette and Denzel Ward, (they) are the only guys who have ever played for us right now. Then you’ve got Rodjay Burns. We moved Wayne Davis to safety. Then you’ve got these four corners that just stepped out there today that looked pretty good.
"So we’d like to play three or four, we’d like to play more than three or four. But our goal – we learned a lesson – that was as good production as we’ve ever had out of corner play anywhere we’ve been. Obviously we’ve had great players, but what we ask those guys to do, it’s a track meet for four hours. If you can get a rotation in there you’re going to be much better, so the answer is yes."
In the past, it was not unusual for starting cornerbacks like Gareon Conley and Eli Apple to get over 1,000 snaps in a season, but with the rotation in effect last season, those 2,000 snaps were split over three players, lessening their respective loads by the equivalent of three or four games.
The benefits were so apparent that the rotation is no longer a want, but a need.
"I think it’s critical to be able to do that so when you get to the latter part of the year, your guys are still able to play at a high, high level," defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said on Thursday. "The goal is that you (move upward)…and at the end of the season you’re peaking.
"We need to be able to do that, and there’s other areas. Obviously with the defensive line we’re going to do that. Every year is different, and the thing as coaches you can’t do is force something to happen. But we sure hope we recruited well enough that we can continue to do those types of rotations."
Junior Denzel Ward is the leader of the group, and behind him are returning players Damon Arnette, Rodjay Burns, and Joshua Norwood. They will all be pushed by a group of freshmen who are as highly-touted as any freshman group in Ohio State history.
Five-star prospects Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade are already on campus, as is four-star Ohioan Marcus Williamson. And they are joined by junior college transfer Kendall Sheffield. While Sheffield has the experience, the freshmen have already been making some noise.
How good can the rookies be this year?
"I think it’s too early to judge," Schiano said. "I’m very impressed with them. They’re very athletic guys, but let’s let them play and see how it goes. But without a doubt, just your initial impression is that they are really talented guys."
Even though Wade and Okudah have gotten the majority of the pub, Sheffield may be the best bet of the newcomers to fight his way into the lineup. Schiano was quick to echo Urban Meyer on the fact that it is apparent that Sheffield has already competed in some high-level atmospheres.
"Yeah, he has a great work ethic and he’s a great competitor," he said. "He doesn’t say a lot, he just goes out and plays."
Ultimately, if you're looking for three starting cornerbacks, the larger the pool to choose from, the better the odds of finding what you are seeking. With four vets and four newcomers at the moment, maybe a rotation of three isn't too far out of reach.
"I think that (cornerbacks coach) Kerry (Coombs) would say that he likes the depth at the position," Schiano said. "But again, the cream’s got to rise to the top because we have one guy who really played meaningful reps at the corner position, and the rest is on the if. So somebody’s going to have to rise up, and hopefully two do so we can have that three-man rotation."