Last season, Ohio State and Kerry Coombs started a movement. Sure, right now it’s a movement that may only be a party of one, but that doesn’t lessen its impact to that particular party.
The Buckeyes rotated three cornerbacks last season, and did it very successfully. This spring, they went about replacing two of those corners, as Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley left early for the NFL Draft, leaving Denzel Ward behind as the last man standing.
Four new cornerbacks entered the picture this spring, as freshmen Shaun Wade, Jeffrey Okudah, Marcus Williamson, and junior college transfer Kendall Sheffield all enrolled early. They played well throughout the spring, adding to Ward and redshirt sophomore Damon Arnette, who are expected to be two of the however many starters this season.
What actually could that number be in 2017? How many cornerbacks could see the field?
“All of them,” Coombs said this spring. “I’m not kidding you. I’m telling you, by August 31, I truly believe they will all be ready to play, and we will play them in some way, shape, or form if they continue to develop on this path. Denzel Ward is going to play a lot of snaps. Damon Arnette is going to play a lot of snaps.
“Kendall Sheffield is going to play a lot of snaps. Jeff Okudah…Shaun Wade, and Marcus Williamson are going to play a lot of snaps. And Amir Riep, I’m not going to sleep on Amir when he shows up. They’re all good enough, and I’m not going to keep a kid on the bench that’s good enough to play when that makes us better. And that’s what we’re going to do.”
Of course, this has been Coombs’ plan for a few years now, but he was finally able to accomplish it last season. It is expected to be the plan moving forward, but the numbers are going to have to be reined in a bit according to Urban Meyer.
“Six or seven corners?” Meyer asked in the spring. “Kerry gets excited. I’ll overrule him. We can’t do that. We could, but we won’t be very good right now. Six or seven deep at corner, is that what he said? Seven corners won’t play. Kerry gets real excited.”
The reason Meyer doesn’t expect that many to play is because he knows how difficult it is just to find two capable cornerbacks. Three was a first, and now they are trying to do it again. They would love four, but it’s not just that easy. The good news, however, is that Coombs has something going here, and recruits — and the NFL — both know it.
“We have a job description for corners,” Meyer explained. “That’s play man to man. It’s amazing what our corners do and obviously Coach Coombs, we’re very good on defense the last two years and it starts at corner because that frees you up to do everything else. We need to keep recruiting, keep developing, because the job that he does developing, it’s amazing.
“The NFL never has come to us and said ‘Hey, we’re looking for a really good zone corner.’ They want man-to-man guys and so do we, and that’s what we ask our players to do. They wake up and they play man to man. They go to sleep playing man to man. So that’s why they get so good at it.”
Still, Coombs and Meyer saw the rotation work last season, and they learned plenty from it. For one, the players stayed fresher throughout a game, as well as throughout the season. That was to be expected. The larger lesson, however, was simply to stay determined. Coombs set his mind to making this happen — even after losing a first-round NFL Draft pick in Eli Apple, and it worked. And now he’s doing it once again, and this time after losing two players to the first round of the NFL Draft.
“Play guys,” he said of what he learned from last year’s rebuild. “That’s the honest truth. I think last year at this time people didn’t believe we would do it. I believed it would work but I didn’t have any evidence. It was theory versus testimony, but now it’s testimony. So what I learned last year was play guys. Play guys. Coach them all really hard and play them.
“Because they’re going to play. I don’t have any fear of a bunch of guys going into the draft, because you know what’s going to happen next year? A bunch of guys are going to go into the draft. And the year after that and the year after that. So what we’re going to do is play guys and have guys ready to play, and then play and recruit more guys.”