First, it was Travis Howard. Then, Bradley Roby. Next was Doran Grant and now, Eli Apple.
What do all these players have in common with regards to Ohio State cornerback lore? All played one year as the "lead" guy at the position under Urban Meyer in Columbus. After that season, they left either to a career in the NFL or upon graduation.
Who is next? Gareon Conley, who started all 13 games in 2015 opposite Apple.
"Absolutely, Gareon is ready," cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said Thursday. "He and I have met several times already about his opportunity to lead in the back end and that will be his job. It is wonderful when it works out that way."
Roby worked alongside Howard, who was a senior, in 2012 before becoming the team's best at the position the following year. He left for the NFL after Ohio State's Orange Bowl loss to Clemson, turning the leadership keys over to Grant, a senior in 2014. Grant did the same to Apple this season, who announced last week of his intentions to head to the pros.
Now, it is Conley's time.
"It’s nice to have a guy who has been a starter, who is coming back to lead the room," Coombs said. "What was great for these guys — and if you even go way back it was Roby and Travis Howard when we first got here — it’s been the same process. Doran really established in the room how to lead the room and Eli was a different kind of leader, but Eli definitely was that guy this year."
Conley put forth a fine season opposite of Apple in 2015. He tallied 49 tackles, half a sack, broke up five passes, picked off two and even blocked a punt in a 49-7 win at Rutgers. He was the lone new starter in the secondary this season, and solidified the back end of Ohio State's defense with Apple, and safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell. The group allowed and average of just 184.5 yards passing in the team's 13 games, good for 17th nationally.
However, when matched up against top Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller in the Fiesta Bowl, Conley gave up the biggest hit of the game.
He allowed four receptions on five targets for 103 yards and a touchdown to Fuller according to CFB Film Room, though the bulk of the yardage came on the scoring play, which traveled 81 yards. Conley slipped and missed the tackle, leading to easily the biggest play of the game for the wide receiver.
The four receptions Fuller had in the Fiesta Bowl were nearly a fifth of the catches Conley allowed all season:
That's 19% of the total receptions allowed by Conley all season https://t.co/e3leGKsIo8— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) January 5, 2016
As Ohio State experiences a roster turnover following a Fiesta Bowl win against Notre Dame New Year's Day, it watches Bell, Powell and Apple all leave for the NFL. Conley is the lone returning starter on the back end.
"Your unit is always better when the leadership comes within the group as opposed to the coach," Coombs said. "When you have a young group like we have this year, it has to be a little more coach-driven. This coming year, Gareon is going to be the guy and he will excel at that."
Conley, from Massillon, Ohio, is set to be a redshirt junior in 2016. Inexperience will be everywhere around him in the cornerback room, too. Marshon Lattimore and Damon Webb are the only guys coming back with live, college game reps at the position. Both missed time with injuries in their young careers, just like senior-to-be Cam Burrows, who can play multiple defensive back positions.
Outside of Conley, Webb, Lattimore, Burrows, young talent like Denzel Ward, Damon Arnette, Eric Glover-Williams, Joshua Norwood and the 2016 recruiting class sit in the wings. Not much experience.
"In the back end, Gareon Conley's going to be a guy," Meyer said Thursday. "We're going to name some leaders early on. It's going to be an energy-filled offseason."
Conley will be looked at to be that leader for Coombs' and new safeties coach Greg Schiano's secondary unit, but the staff assured the media in earnest that he will thrive in that opportunity.
Just like Roby, Grant and Apple did before him.
"Very excited for Gareon because he likes that," Coombs said. "He’s got a charismatic personality and he’s a guy that’s going to — he will take over the room."