Looking to replace key starters from last year's national championship squad including Devin Smith, Michael Bennett and Doran Grant, among others, this year's spring drills concluded with a few names being penciled in entering fall camp.
One of the more intriguing battles for a starting nod featured Gareon Conley and Damon Webb as the duo fought to earn a cornerback spot made available with Grant moving on to the NFL.
When the dust settled on the duel, Urban Meyer proclaimed Conley the victor saying, "Gareon Conley is penciled in now. We’re going to make the call to the family and say your son earned a right to start at Ohio State.”
The fact Meyer came out so emphatically in support of Conley felt like a testament to the redshirt sophomore's reestablished confidence and improvement shown during spring drills considering he struggled in spot duty last year including one start against Michigan State in which he got lost twice in coverage yielding big gainers along with a handful of missed tackles prompting a quick hook.
Despite last year's woes, Conley is obviously a legit talent as he entered the program ranked the 7th-best corner prospect by ESPN and the fact he has two spring sessions under his belt after a redshirt 2013 campaign also undoubtedly aided his efforts to beat out Webb exiting camp.
For Webb, the goal is to continue working at his craft over the summer and take momentum into fall practice when he should still have a chance to beat out Conley for the starting job or potentially solidify his status as a nickel back on passing downs against appropriate personnel. He'll have Marshon Lattimore and others to contend with but the No. 1 corner prospect in the midwest, touted as a press coverage specialist as part of Ohio State's 2014 recruiting haul, has the talent to play his way onto the field.
Like many of Ohio State's young players, Webb needs meaningful reps to see if he can translate effort in practice to production on the field – something Conley struggled to do a year ago. Webb should also keep in mind that earning a starting job in spring, as Conley has done, or even early in the season doesn't mean the job is locked up for the year. We saw the latter scenario play out just last fall as Cam Burrows actually started the season opener at safety ahead of Vonn Bell who shortly thereafter seized the starting job and enjoyed a breakout season.
On-field success for Webb would also be important to Ohio State's continued efforts to turn former Michigan football factory Detroit Cass Tech High School into Cleveland Glenville North.
When Webb, the second verbal commitment in Meyer's 2014 class, signed on the dotted line he became the first Cass Tech player since Vernon Gholston in 2004 to don the scarlet and gray. Since Webb repaved the way, Meyer has brought two additional Cass Tech players to Columbus in running back Mike Weber and defensive lineman Joshua Alabi as part of the 2015 class. Knowing Michigan has signed no less than 10 players from Cass Tech in the last eight years, seeing production from a guy like Webb could pay dividends down the road with future talent at the school.
Of course, for Webb, the focus is to impress Kerry Coombs, not worry about future talent from Detroit coming to Columbus, and though he didn't win a starting nod in the spring, he did grab the attention of his fiery position coach:
Damon Webb, this is his first spring. It’s a lot, it’s hard. He is playing corner and nickel and he is handling it extremely well. He is one of the most competitive players on the team.”
With more practice reps and experience to complement his talent and competitive nature, it's hard not to see Webb being a meaningful contributor on Ohio State's defense this fall.