COLUMBUS — Ohio State has become synonymous with having some of the best defensive backs in all of college football.
Seven Buckeyes cornerbacks have been first-round picks in the NFL draft since 2014, including Jeffrey Okudah (Detroit) and Damon Arnette (Las Vegas) after last season.
They were preceded as first-round selections by Denzel Ward (Cleveland) in 2018, Marshon Lattimore (New Orleans) and Gareon Conley (Houston) in 2017, Eli Apple (Carolina) in 2016 and Bradley Roby (Denver) in 2014.
This level of success on the field and on draft day has led to the use of acronyms like DBU (Defensive Backs University) and BIA (Best in America) to describe Ohio State’s defensive backfield.
Whether the 2020 version of OSU’s secondary lives up to those descriptions will play a major role in determining if this year’s Buckeyes perform at a national championship level or fall short of their lofty expectations.
The operative acronym heading into the season opener against Nebraska on Saturday might be LFA, Looking for Answers.
In addition to replacing Okudah and Arnette, Ohio State will have someone new at the safety position that belonged to Jordan Fuller, a fourth-round NFL draft pick, last season.
OSU also will be without Jeff Hafley, who in his one season as defensive backs coach and co-defensive coordinator orchestrated a dramatic turnaround in the defensive backfield before leaving to become head coach at Boston College.
Depth at cornerback and safety took a hit when Brendon White and Isaiah Pryor transferred and Amir Riep and Jahsen Wint were removed from the team after being charged with rape in January.
Cornerback Shaun Wade, the one returning starter, is viewed as the next Ohio State defensive back who could hear his name called early on draft day.
Wade considered turning pro after the 2019 season but didn’t. Then when it appeared the Big Ten was not going to play football this fall, he announced Sept. 14 he was going to leave the Buckeyes and focus on the NFL draft.
Two days later when the Big Ten said it would play this fall, he decided to return to Ohio State.
The other reason for optimism is that former OSU defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs has returned as defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach.
Coombs coached defensive backs at Ohio State from 2012-2017 before spending two years as an assistant with the Tennessee Titans.
The new coach is known for his energy and exuberance, but even he admits there are some unique challenges this year.
“This season more than any other you’re going to have to depend on young players, inexperienced players to step in and fill roles. We’re working really hard on developing depth,” Coombs said.
Sevyn Banks, Cameron Brown, Marcus Williamson and Tyreke Johnson appear to be the leading candidates to replace Okudah and Arnette if OSU uses three cornerbacks and one safety, as it did much of last season.
Banks, Brown and Williamson were 4-star recruits and Johnson was a 5-star, but at Ohio State they have combined for one start and one interception, both by Banks.
“We’ve done a lot of waiting, I’ve done a lot of waiting,” Williamson said during a recent Zoom video conference. “Trying to reach that standard that Jeff set last year and guys set previously is something we all strive for and I strive for personally.
“If you know anything about Coach Coombs, he always brings the energy. I really think he has brought a new life to the secondary. We lost most of our starters from last year, and we’ve got a lot of young guys who haven’t been through the program.
“Now that Coach Coombs is back, it has really rejuvenated me and kind of reminded me of why you come here. You come here to win championships and get to the next level,” he said.
Coombs said, “It’s very early to say I’m confident, but I really like these kids. I like Shaun Wade. I think we have a lot of talent in the back end, but it’s young and inexperienced. We lost a bunch of really good talent, but we recruited a lot of good players, guys who have worked hard to have that opportunity.
“Physically, I love long, fast corners, and we all know that. But more than anything, I want a mentally tough guy who’s going to line up day in, day out, play in, play out, and have the confidence that his guy is not going to get open.
“I like to recruit guys who their guy doesn’t catch balls,” he said.
Coombs says another reason he believes in his young players is that they’ve already faced a high level of competition.
“We have to compete against the best wide receivers in the country day in and day out (in practice),” Coombs said. “And because of that, you survive or you get eaten alive. And the kids that survive here in practice are going to be OK on Saturdays. If they’re OK on Saturdays at a place like this, they’re probably going to have a chance to be OK on Sunday somewhere else.”
Banks said, “We’re taking it day by day right now. I’m taking it day by day right now. I just can’t wait to get on the field and I can’t wait to show it.”