Ohio State had an incredible season last year on its way to the College Football Playoff, where it nearly beat Clemson and advanced to the national title game. Many of the key players from that team moved onto the NFL. Who could step in to make plays similar to what the former Buckeyes made last season? Lettermen Row is breaking down key plays and who could make them. Next up: How the Buckeyes defense can replace Damon Arnette on the outside.
COLUMBUS — Jeff Okudah received all the praise and accolades in the Ohio State secondary last season. But he wasn’t the only lockdown cornerback on the field.
Damon Arnette, who nearly left for the NFL last offseason before making a last-minute decision to return to school, certainly could’ve been the No. 1 cornerback on nearly every other roster in college football.
That’s why Arnette was worthy of a surprise first-round selection by the Oakland Raiders last month, and that’s why he’ll be just as difficult to replace as Okudah was for Kerry Coombs and the Ohio State secondary.
“No, not really [surprised about the first-round pick],” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said after the draft. “I was more surprised that leading up to it people had projected him into the second round. I think when you look at his body of work, his versatility and the fact that you’re getting a fifth-year senior who has played a lot of football … you’re getting a mature guy who competed at a high level. Then he showed toughness this year playing with a broken hand.
“It’s hard to tell because we don’t know who all else is out there in terms of the prospects, that’s not our job. But he was definitely a first-round talent, and I think he’s going to play really well out there in Vegas.”
Somebody has to replace him. Shaun Wade will certainly become the featured cornerback next season for the Buckeyes, as he looks to build a first-round resume that rivals Okudah and Arnette. But on the other side, the battle to be a starting cornerback for Ohio State and have the pressure that comes with that is only beginning. And it might carry all the way into fall camp to September.
Who could take over and fill the void Arnette left? Lettermen Row is breaking down the candidates.
Ohio State options
Cameron Brown: Brown was the primary backup last season, the third cornerback and a key piece for the defense. When Okudah and Arnette each came out of games with small bumps and bruises, Brown was able to show what he can do on the outside. Can his progression continue and allow him to make the leap into a great Ohio State cornerback like Arnette? It’s tough to tell now, but Brown showed signs of promise last year and seems to be making more strides. He and Sevyn Banks will likely play on the opposite side of the field as Wade. One of them will need to break out.
Sevyn Banks: In the few spring practices the Buckeyes were able to go through before the shutdown, Banks looked like a different player after another winter in Mickey Marotti’s weight program. Banks added some muscle to his lengthy build, something that could help him develop into a superstar cornerback in an already-loaded secondary. If Banks and Brown get to go head-to-head for one of the starting jobs in fall camp, it could be the best position battle the Buckeyes have. While Wade is manning one side of the field as a future first-round pick, Banks could become the second cornerback.
Tyreke Johnson: The former five-star, top-20 prospect hasn’t lived up to that recruiting ranking through two seasons at Ohio State, but he still has three seasons left to prove he was worth all the hype. After being recruited by Kerry Coombs, Johnson has played for Taver Johnson and Jeff Hafley in the previous two years before reuniting with Coombs. Can that be the spark Johnson needs to get off the bench and find the field for the Buckeyes? This offseason might be crucial to answering that.
Marcus Williamson: Williamson only has one more year to prove he’s more than just a special teams player for the Buckeyes, and the competition for Arnette’s former job could be just what Williamson needs to find a role on the defense. He has been one of the most productive special teams members at Ohio State during his career, but it’s finally time to take the next step. With limited options, Ohio State may need Williamson on the outside as the second cornerback. Or the Buckeyes could use him in the slot. Wherever he’s needed, Williamson will likely have a role.
Ryan Watts/Lejond Cavazos: The pair of true freshman enrolled early and had a path to playing time with an impressive showing during the spring. But the spring ultimately didn’t happen the way Ohio State — or any college football programs — would’ve wanted, so the road for the young cornerbacks might be harder to find with a lack of reps they thought they would receive in March and April.
The pick: Brown and Banks
Coombs made the three-man rotation at cornerback famous for Ohio State during his last stint, so it’s reasonable to think he’ll do it again when the Buckeyes return to the practice field — whenever that may be. Brown and Banks both showed signs of stardom last year in their limited backup roles, and they both looked physically improved in the spring after another offseason with Mickey Marotti.
Wade will be the No. 1 cornerback after choosing to return to school, but he might do it in a semi-rotational basis if Banks and Brown can both prove to be worthy options on the outside. Every starting cornerback for Ohio State since 2014 has been drafted. Banks and Brown will have their first real chances to prove they belong in that conversation starting in September.