When cornerback Shaun Wade announced his return to Ohio State on Saturday, he made a difficult situation considerably better.
Wade could have gone the route of cornerback Jeff Okudah and turned pro early, but if he had, the Buckeyes would be looking for four new starters in the 2020 secondary.
Instead, he came back and will finally be given a shot to play outside, which will help the Buckeyes’ defense and improve Wade’s draft stock.
Wade won’t be the lone familiar face in the secondary, but he will be the only returning starter.
Safety Jordan Fuller and cornerback Damon Arnette both exhausted their eligibility after weighing NFL decisions a year ago. Okudah weighed his decision as well, but it’s almost impossible to say no to a Top 5 projection, and so he entered the draft just as anybody else would have done.
Losing those three is going to be difficult enough for Ohio State to overcome, but had Wade joined them in the NFL, difficult would have been trending toward impossible.
As it stands now, however, Wade gives the Buckeyes a foundation outside at cornerback and provides the defense with one of the top defensive backs in the nation.
His presence alone sets the rest of the secondary up for success.
Ryan Day has said the defensive system won’t be changing moving forward, which means they will again feature three corners and a one-high deep safety. With Wade moving outside, the Buckeyes still need another pair of cornerbacks to emerge. One of those spots will be joining him outside. The other will be his replacement on the inside.
Second-year cornerbacks Cameron Brown and Sevyn Banks played extensively in 2019, as did junior Amir Riep. Riep was generally Wade’s replacement this past season, particularly when Wade was injured against Michigan and stolen by the replay official against Clemson. The results were mixed, as they might expect to be in such situations.
Banks actually got a start this past season when Arnette missed the Rutgers game, but it has been Brown who saw more playing time in 2019. Together, the three of them will need to step forward and be part of the solution in finding two new cornerback starters. Had Wade not returned, there would be absolutely no room for error.
Rising junior safety Josh Proctor was Fuller’s backup this past season and played quite a bit in various roles for the secondary. His range has earned him comparisons to former Buckeye All-American safety Malik Hooker. As he showed against Clemson, however, he still has some room to grow to be the tackler that Fuller was.
Proctor is expected to step in for Fuller in 2020, but his ability to tackle is just as important as his ability to cover. One of the reasons the Buckeyes didn’t give up many home run shots this past season is because Fuller was there to make sure nothing crazy happened.
Proctor will need to bring that same level of security or else the 2020 Buckeye defense won’t see quite as straight as the 2019 edition.
Beyond Wade, Proctor, Banks, Brown, and Riep, depth will need to be found.
All four of Proctor, Banks, Brown, and Riep were instrumental in the Ohio State defense in 2019, despite having one collective start among them. Given their impact in a year of relative good health, it wouldn’t be surprising to need four more just like them to emerge from the Buckeye bench in 2020.
Safety Marcus Hooker saw a surprising amount of time in 2019 as a redshirt freshman. He will have to build on that while competing with the likes of redshirt freshmen Ronnie Hickman and Bryson Shaw, as well as true freshman Lathan Ransom.
Cornerback is actually a much larger concern because the Buckeyes didn’t sign any in the 2019 class. Contributions from fourth-year corner Marcus Williamson and third-year corner Tyreke Johnson will be key. Behind them will be incoming freshmen Lejond Cavazos and Ryan Watts.
The good news for all involved is that both Cavazos and Watts are already enrolled and getting their respective careers underway.
There are a number of questions marks about the 2020 Buckeyes as they stand less than two months from spring ball.
With the return of Shaun Wade, however, at least one of those questions has a surefire answer.