At the conclusion of the 2018 season, Ohio State's pass defense ranked No. 86 in the country. This year's version is ranked No. 5.
The Buckeyes had the talent last year, but coverage breakdowns and poor angles led to explosive plays in just about every single game. To simply say that Jeff Hafley has turned things around in the secondary wouldn't fully do justice to the work the man has put in.
Ohio State is giving up just 152 passing yards per game, and it's even more impressive when you consider just how often the opposition has needed to throw the football. That's nearly 100 fewer yards per contest than the 2018 team allowed to opposing quarterbacks.
Jeffrey Okudah is playing like the best corner in college football and is looking like a sure-fire first-round Draft pick. Damon Arnette's decision to return for his senior year is paying off in a big way. Jordan Fuller has continued his solid play at safety, and Shaun Wade – though only a redshirt sophomore – is starting to appear in the first round on some mock drafts.
While Okudah and Wade will likely be faced with a very important decision, it's no secret that the Buckeyes will be losing plenty of talent in the secondary. The good news? Guys like Cameron Brown and Sevyn Banks are already seeing plenty of action and will have some experience under their belts before having much larger roles in 2020.
The other bit of good news? In addition to being a wizard when working with Ohio State's defensive backs, Jeff Hafley has already proven to be one of the staff's – and college football's – top recruiters. And the Buckeyes already have a nice reload in the works.
|CLARK PHILLIPS III||LA HABRA, CA||CORNER||5-foot-11, 178 pounds||★★★★||No. 45|
|LATHAN RANSOM||TUCSON, AZ||SAFETY||6-foot-1, 193 pounds||★★★★||No. 75|
|KOURT WILLIAMS||BELLFLOWER, CA||SAF/OLB||6-foot-1, 216 pounds||★★★★||No. 162|
|LEJOND CAVAZOS||SEGUIN, TEXAS||CORNER||6-foot-1, 196 pounds||★★★★||No. 242|
|CAMERON MARTINEZ||MUSKEGON, MI||SAF/ATH||5-foot-11, 183 pounds||★★★||No. 370|
While Jeff Hafley and Ryan Day made it clear that they aren't planning on going anywhere, we'd be silly to assume the same for Jeffrey Okudah and perhaps even Shaun Wade. If the duo does elect to test the NFL waters – along with the departures of Fuller and Arnette – you'd be looking at some thinned out depth in the secondary.
The Buckeyes currently have five commitments who should end up somewhere in the secondary. Clark Phillips is one of the best pure corners in America and may very well end up as a five-star prospect. Lejond Cavazos is a versatile defender playing at the powerhouse IMG Academy program, and he's likely able to play corner or safety at the next level.
Tucson's Lathan Ransom is a pure safety and one of the hardest hitters in America (seriously). And then there's Cameron Martinez and Kourt Williams. Martinez is a high school quarterback who's beyond dangerous with the ball in his hands, and the thought is that he's likely going to be a slot receiver or safety in Columbus. Williams is more of a safety/linebacker hybrid who projects at a few different spots in the back seven.
We're obviously a long way away from the start of the 2020 season, and it'll be three months before any of the five commits arrive on campus as early enrollees. Still, I don't think there's much doubt that some of these defensive back commitments will be expected to contribute early in some capacity; and not just on special teams.
We've mentioned it several times in the past, but Jordan Battle flipping to Alabama led to Ohio State not signing a single cornerback for the 2019 class. That – along with the possibility of losing both Okudah and Wade – means that Hafley and Co. are still looking for another one to complement Phillips and Cavazos.
We've had four-star cornerback Ryan Watts on our board for the last few months, and he's had the attention of the Ohio State staff dating all the way back to the spring and summer. There was some big news last week when the Little Elm, Texas defender backed off of his Oklahoma commitment, and now it may just be a matter of time until things officially turn in the Buckeyes' favor.
Watts made his official visit to Columbus for the Sept. 21 game against Miami, and things were fairly quiet following the trip. It wasn't a total surprise since he's not much of a talker, but he did tell some folks he was hoping to check out Penn State before a final decision.
The news of the decommitment broke, the planned trip to Happy Valley now seems to be an afterthought, crystal balls began to fly in Ohio State's favor, and now we're just waiting on the next bit of news to drop.
If you're a fan of bigger cornerbacks, then the 6-foot-2.5, 187-pounder is sure to be an enticing prospect. If Clark Phillips is in the Denzel Ward mold from a size and physicality standpoint, then Watts is likely to draw comparisons to Gareon Conley. More importantly, he'd be yet another talented defender to add some depth for 2020 and beyond.
Looking ahead a bit to next season, I think we can already start to picture how things may look in the defensive backfield. If Okudah and Wade were to bolt, then Sevyn Banks, Cameron Brown, Marcus Williamson, and Amir Riep would be the lead guys at corner. Josh Proctor seems destined for stardom at free safety while Brendon White and Jahsen Wint would still be manning the hybrid role.
Ryan Day is still looking to add about four or five more before all is said and done for 2020, and another secondary piece remains a priority to help reload what's expected to be quite the exodus from a talented 2019 Buckeye secondary.