LOOKING BACK: When you evaluate last season's play out of the defensive backfield, it's almost impossible to go overboard in assessing their value to the Ohio State team. Best overall position group on the team? Without question. Best defensive backfield in America? Check. Greatest defensive back performance in Ohio State's storied history? I believe so. With that being said, they lose Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley and Malik Hooker to the NFL. AND all of them leave early, with Lattimore and Hooker coming out of nowhere to be high draft picks. How in God's name does Greg Schiano possibly replace those three guys? Well there's definitely going to be a dropoff, but it might not be as severe as people think.
THE RETURNING STARTER: Only Damon Webb returns as a starter, and he was clearly the least talented of the four. Webb should retain his spot as the cover safety, matching up on the opposition's tight ends and fourth wideouts, and while he did struggle early last season his play improved throughout the end of the year. He started his career as a cornerback and played some nickelback, so he's used to being in coverage. He should keep his job, and be counted on to provide veteran leadership in the back end, making sure everyone is lined up properly in the defensive backfield.
THE INCOMING FRESHMAN: If you have to keep losing DB's early to the NFL draft, you'd better be replacing them with studs, and Urban Meyer went out and assembled the most talented defensive back class I've ever seen. In the sort term, JUCO transfer Kendall Sheffield will be counted on next year to start on the corner and be the next NFL early entry. Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade are talented enough to challenge for immediate playing time, and both could be three-and-out types. That leaves guys like Isaiah Pryor, Marcus Williamson and Amir Riep, and if these were your only DB signees you would feel good about your class.
THE CORNERBACK POSITION: Sheffield is the big IF at this spot. IF, repeat, IF he can step right in and start at one of the corner spots, that alleviates a lot of stress. Because Denzel Ward can just take the other spot, where he played exceptionally well last year. They can then leave Damon Arnette at the nickel spot, where he played last year. This would be the best scenario for Schiano. If Sheffield isn't ready, then it gets interesting. Do they put Arnette at corner, and hold tryouts for the nickel spot? Would Wayne Davis, Rodjay Burns or Jordan Norwood be capable? Or would Okudah and Wade fly right by them? I believe Sheffield will step right in and be the man, which would stabilize the cornerback/nickel spots.
THE SAFETY POSITION: They have to replace centerfielder Malik Hooker, and that is just not going to be easy. Who has that kind of range, that much football intelligence and that good of ball skills? Even though he's been hampered by injuries his entire time at Ohio State, Erick Smith can do a lot of the things Hooker did. He needs to be 100% healthy, but he has cover skills and can hit. They're high on Jordan Fuller and while he is probably more suited for Webb's spot, he is talented enough to get on the field. Would they shift Wade or Okudah over to challenge Smith and Fuller? I think Okudah is best suited to take Hooker's spot eventually, so let's see where they start him out. I do not have Jahsen Wint factoring into this mix.
THE OUTLOOK: Just like last year, there are question marks galore, but also talent galore. Can these guys match last year's group in overall effectiveness? Not a chance. Can they be good enough to win a national championship with? I believe they are that good, but we won't know that until the bullets start flying for real. Realistically, this group might be a year away, but Ohio State is primed to win now, so there's a lot of pressure on Schiano to get them up to speed.