While Ohio State’s defensive line has the most depth of talent, the 2016 defensive secondary was loaded with top-end NFL caliber players.
Starting safety Malik Hooker and cornerbacks Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore were all stellar throughout the season, and each came up with huge plays to keep the Buckeyes in the hunt for a national title. Conley impressed with a game-clinching interception against Michigan State and a pick on Clemson’s first play of the game in the Fiesta Bowl. Lattimore was perhaps a surprise performer this year after suffering from injury issues early in his career, but he was a lockdown corner in the final seven games of the year and the Ohio State defense was noticeably worse when he was banged up against Clemson.
Hooker was the Buckeyes’ best defensive player this year, and he finished the season with 74 total tackles and seven interceptions, three of which he returned for scores. In the second half, Hooker had picks against both Michigan and Clemson, with his touchdown against the Wolverines proving to be a key play for the Buckeyes.
Denzel Ward, the third corner in Ohio State’s rotation, held his own as well, though nickelback Damon Arnette struggled in the second half of the year and was often replaced by Conley as the slot corner.
Playing next to Hooker, Damon Webb struggled in coverage at times but he was great against the run and finished with 57 total tackles, good for fifth on the team, and he sparked Ohio State’s 62-3 win over Nebraska with a pick-six.
When it was all said and done, though, Lattimore was one of the biggest storylines of the college football season, and his performance wasn’t lost on the coaching staff.
“Number one, he’s an exceptional athlete,” defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said of Lattimore. “Physically very, very gifted. Tremendous hand-eye coordination. I think if we moved Marshon over to the other side of the ball, he would be one of the best receivers on the team. That’s the kind of athlete he is.
“But what he’s able to do (after having injury issues), he’s been able to learn how to manage his body and take care of his body like a pro, and that’s allowed him to go out and play consistently week after week after week, which allows him to make those plays.”
Ohio State felt the cost of having such a strong secondary when the season ended, though. Conley, Lattimore and Hooker all opted to leave early and enter the NFL draft, meaning the Buckeyes will have to replace three starters. They could turn to a rising sophomore like Jordan Fuller at safety, or a rising senior like Erick Smith, while talented defensive backs Kendall Sheffield, Shaun Wade and Jeffrey Okudah, to name a few, are all part of the 2017 recruiting class.
BSB Midterm Grade: A-
BSB Second-Half Grade: A
BSB Final Grade: A
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