There are exceptions – perhaps when true freshmen arrive and excel, or when there’s a three-person quarterback battle to sort out – but by and large, Meyer wants to have a set depth chart once spring practice is over.
And when it comes to the cornerback spot, Meyer left spring knowing what will happen opposite returning starter and freshman All-American Eli Apple.
That was the goal for the third-year sophomore from Massillon (Ohio) Washington, who had a spirited battle with Apple last fall for the starting job opposite Doran Grant only to fall short.
Still, Conley is taking nothing for granted.
“It gives me confidence and just knowing that I have to compete for that still, it’s not guaranteed,” he said. “I always know in the back of my head no spot is always going to be yours. I have to continue to compete for it and keep it. You have to make it yours.”
And if Conley had any worries about resting on his laurels, all he’d have to do is look back to last year’s Michigan State game for motivation. He got the spot start in place of Apple, who was nursing a hamstring injury on a chilly night in East Lansing, but was beaten for a deep pass on the first drive of the game by Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook. Later on the drive, Conley missed a tackle as Keith Mumphery ran through his attempt and scored the game’s first touchdown.
Apple quickly was summoned from the stationary bike and finished the Buckeyes’ victory, and Conley didn’t get first-team reps the rest of the season. He admits it was tough moment but also insists it provided motivation.
“Last year, I came in at Michigan State and messed up a couple of plays and that just kind of brought me down,” he said. “I didn’t have as much confidence and belief in myself, but just knowing that my teammates know that I’m out there and my coaches put me out there, that just builds my confidence.”
Cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs echoed that point.
“We’re talking about celebration as great motivation, so is getting your butt beat, right?” he said. “And failing and not doing what you thought you could do, what great motivation that is. So we talk about that in very honest terms in our room and … when he trots out there Sept. 7 he’s got to know they are coming to get you. What happened when you went out on the field last year? They came right at you, it took one play to find him. He knows that.
“We live in a big-boy world out there in press corners at the corner position. You train and you work. There’s a different level of expectation on the part of the player who feels really good that he is going to be the starter. Damon Webb is nipping at his heels and he wants that job, but Gareon’s walking out of the locker room every morning saying, ‘I’m going to be that guy.’ It’s a little different level than, ‘I’m hoping I’m that guy, I might be that guy.’ There’s no safety net.”
Conley showed that confidence in the spring game, playing well while facing the first-team offense and breaking up a deep pass, capping what Coombs described as “a very good spring.”
“He’d adjusting well,” his fellow starter Apple said. “He’s had a tough year, a little bit of being thrown into the fire unexpectedly at times, but he’s taken his role right now. He’s taking a great attitude. You can tell he’s taking everything serious right now.”
A one-time Michigan commit, Conley came to Ohio State from the storied Washington program as a two-way player. The 6-0 athlete started at cornerback but arrived at 168 pounds; now he’s up to 190 and appears ready to play the Buckeyes’ difficult pressing system out wide.
A year after his time on the field might have sapped him of confidence, now Conley appears to have the mind-set that it’s his time to take over.
“I’m coming out confident and not thinking, ‘Aw, I’m going to mess up,’ ” he said. “Just the whole mentality of the defense and my whole team having faith in everybody. Everybody comes together, and it just builds your confidence to know your teammates have your back.”