We’ve made it through the entire Ohio State offense and the first two levels of the defense in our Next Man Up series and it’s become increasingly obvious how much inexperienced talent the Buckeyes will be leaning on this season.
The amount of former four- or five-star prospects that have yet to see significant time on the field for Ohio State is staggering and nowhere is that more true than in the defensive backfield.
The Buckeyes are replacing three players from the back four of their defense in Eli Apple, Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell. Bell was a second-round pick in April while Apple went 10th overall, the third consecutive Ohio State cornerback to be drafted. There are big shoes to fill, but it seems as though the Buckeyes have the talent on hand to fill them.
“I think Malik (Hooker) and Damon Webb are the two guys that probably stood out at the safety spot, because Erick (Smith) is not in there and Cam (Burrows) it is tough to evaluate with the little time he had to actually play,” co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “Then you obviously have Gareon (Conley) and you have got Marshon (Lattimore) and Denzel Ward. Marshon is hard to evaluate too because of the amount of reps he was able to get. But there is a lot of competition and find a way to get those best 11 guys out there. “
All of those players mentioned by Fickell were once four-star recruits and only Conley has seen significant time for the Buckeyes, starting opposite Apple last season. He will slide into Apple’s role as the top corner for Ohio State next season. Here’s a look at the next men up alongside Conley at cornerback and safety for the Buckeyes broken down from most experienced to least experienced.
Cam Burrows came to Ohio State in the 2013 class as a four-star cornerback but has since moved to safety for the Buckeyes. While he has been in the program longer than anyone else on the back end, the redshirt junior has appeared in 14 games but not started for Ohio State. It’s hard to say exactly how Burrow will factor in for the Buckeyes this fall as injuries limited his contributions throughout the spring, perhaps allowing younger players to pass him in the pecking order.
Another four-star recruit, Erick Smith came to Ohio State as a member of the 2014 class. Smith has been stuck behind Powell and Bell during his first two years in Columbus, but has seen the field for the Buckeyes. He has seen time in nine games for Ohio Statea dn recorded an interception as a freshman in 2014. Smith always appeared to be just a step behind Powell and Bell – and Powell said in 2015 that the defense would not miss a beat if Smith had to step in – but the safety tore his ACL during his sophomore season and, like Burrows, was limited throughout the spring.
Another defensive back who has dealt with injuries, Marshon Lattimore came to Ohio State as a four-star cornerback in the 2014 class. A left hamstring injury cost Lattimore the entirety of his freshman year and a right hamstring injury slowed him during his second year on campus. Now entering his redshirt sophomore season with the Buckeyes the hope is that Lattimore will finally be healthy enough to make an impact for Ohio State. The coaching staff was took a cautious approach with Lattimore over spring practice, but was still considered a lead contender to start opposite Conley next season.
Yet another four-star, Damon Webb played in eight games as a true freshman cornerback in 2014. He spent time away from the team as a sophomore for undisclosed reasons, but returned to the team and is competing for one of the open safety spots as a junior in 2016. The staff seems to like the coverage abilities Webb brings to the safety position, but his inexperience at that position may ultimately cost him a starting role.
The coaching staff’s confidence in Denzel Ward, a four-star from the 2015 class, is part of the reason that Webb has shifted to safety. The self-proclaimed fastest player on the roster, Ward was one of the few true freshman to play for the Buckeyes in 2015, seeing action in five games for Ohio State. His elite speed is enticing for the staff and could land him a starting spot as a true sophomore.
Like Ward, Eric Glover-Williams saw time as a true freshman last year. He came to Ohio State as a four-star cornerback but moved to safety during spring practice, in part because of the injury issues at that position, but seemed to adapt to the new role. A high-level athlete with long arms and strong coverage skills, Glover-Williams will likely be a top reserve for the Buckeyes in 2016.
While the Buckeyes are loaded with more experienced talent in the defensive backfield, Jordan Fuller could push for time on the field next season. The No. 127 overall player in the 2016 class, Fuller seems capable of lining up at safety or cornerback for the Buckeyes next season, but will likely get his first shot at cornerback. While there are players ahead of him with more time in the program, Fuller’s elite talent – he was the No. 10 cornerback in the 2016 class – may get him on the field as a true freshman.
Fuller isn’t the only elite defensive back in the 2016 class as Wayne Davis joins him in that regard. The No. 22 cornerback in 2016, Davis comes to Ohio State from Lake Taylor (Va.) High School. Like Fuller he could push his way in some capacity as a freshman, though the immense (albeit unproven) talent ahead of him may force Davis to sit and wait.