Luke Fickell knows how exceptional Ohio State's cornerbacks are this season. He also is aware what talents like Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley and Denzel Ward allow the rest of the nation's fourth-ranked defense to do.
“People say, 'Oh you can do a lot because your corners can cover a lot.' You're right,” Fickell said at Ohio State Fiesta Bowl Media Day last week. “We look them in the face every time we have a meeting and say, 'We do what we do because you guys give us the opportunity.'
“It's not something genius we thought up.”
Lattimore and Conley join unanimous All-American and free safety Malik Hooker near the top of multiple 2017 NFL Draft boards for a reason. Each is fast, has long arms and is exceptional at playing the press-man coverage Chris Ash implemented prior to the 2014 season then Kerry Coombs and Greg Schiano honed even more this year.
And each will face an extremely tall task on New Year's Eve in Phoenix against star wide receiver Mike Williams and the high-powered offense of the Clemson Tigers.
“They're going to be the best matchup we've had,” Fickell said. “Those guys are going to be challenged more than they ever have.”
We've already told you the matchup between Ohio State's defensive backs and Clemson's talented wide outs is one of most importance in the College Football Playoff national semifinal. Urban Meyer called the skill set on the outside "over the top" the day the world learned which teams made it into the top four and who played whom.
“They're all NFL players,” he said.
Maybe not all, but most of them have the potential to play on Sundays. Williams is the ringleader, bouncing back from a horrific neck injury that caused him to miss the 2015 season to catch 84 passes for 1,171 yards and 10 touchdowns—all team highs. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound redshirt junior is widely regarded as the top prospect at his position in the 2017 NFL Draft.
“Every receiver we've seen – well, most of the receivers we've seen – they're great, but yeah, he's good,” Lattimore said last week. “I think he's NFL-ready. It's going to be a challenge.”
“I’ve been watching film on him and every jump ball that he gets when the ball is thrown his way, I feel like he has the mentality that it’s going to be his ball,” Hooker added. “So, I feel like it’s definitely going to be a task for the secondary.”
Clemson has six players with at least 400 yards receiving this year; five wide receivers and versatile tight end Jordan Leggett. Heisman Trophy runner-up Deshaun Watson is brilliant in his own right, completing 68 percent of his passes for 3,914 yards and 37 touchdowns in 2016. He puts the ball in places his guys can go get it, and Williams is primarily the one who brings it in and shoves aside defenders to put points on the board.
Watson is a more than serviceable runner too, a fine athlete that is destined to play at the next level. He is the head to the snake that is the whole offense with more than enough weapons to move the ball and score in bunches. There are elite athletes and players all across the board, just what you would expect from a team that made the national championship game a year ago and returned to the College Football Playoff.
“We try to consider ourselves as next-level guys, too, so we're not going to shy away from competition just because they're next level guys as well,” Lattimore said. “We're just going to embrace it and go at it.”
That is what Fickell's defense and in particular Ohio State's secondary did on its way to helping the Buckeyes win 11 games in the regular season. Now the real test awaits—being attacked by an offense from all angles through the air and on the ground.
“It's different than any one that we've faced this year. There's some good offenses and some different offenses. That's the beauty of college football. You can change each and every week,” Fickell said. “It's gonna be a unique matchup. We're very good on the outside and we've been very good all year.”