2016 Season Preview: How Ohio State Intends to Replace Three Starters in the Secondary

By Tim Shoemaker on August 25, 2016 at 8:35 am
Malik Hooker could be a breakout star for Ohio State.
Eleven Warriors' Ohio State Football 2016 Season Preview

As is the case with the majority of position groups, Ohio State's defensive backfield underwent some serious turnover this offseason. The Buckeyes lost three starters from one of their strongest units in 2015.

Gareon Conley is the lone returner in the Buckeyes' back four as Eli Apple, Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell all currently reside on NFL rosters. Conley will lead an inexperienced, but talented, secondary for Ohio State in 2016.

It's a daunting task when you consider how much the Buckeyes' pass defense improved over the last two seasons. And Ohio State must replace the man most responsible for that, as well, as Chris Ash left after two years as the Buckeyes' safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator to become the head coach at Rutgers. Ohio State hired Greg Schiano as his replacement, and it's going to be Schiano's job to make sure there isn't a drop-off despite the talent loss.

The Buckeyes' secondary is one of many question marks on the team as it gets set to enter 2016 and it might just be the most important one. What follows is a breakdown of Ohio State's back four, how it performed in 2015, what to look for this season and much more.

Ohio State's Defensive Backs in 2015

The Buckeyes' secondary was one of the best in all of college football a season ago. Ohio State ranked 16th nationally in pass defense, allowing just 184.5 yards per game through the air.

Ash's aggressive system combined with the talent the Buckeyes' possessed allowed this to be possible.

Apple was the team's No. 1 corner and had a strong season with eight pass breakups and one interception. He was then selected No. 10 overall by the New York Giants in the NFL Draft after leaving school early.

Bell was an All-American safety who ranked fifth on the team in tackles with 65 and had a team-high nine pass breakups. He also left school early and was a second-round selection by the New Orleans Saints.

Ohio State's Defensive Backs
Player No. HT. WT. YR. Hometown
Damon Arnette 3 6-0 195 RS-FR Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (St. Thomas Aquinas)
Jarrod Barnes 26 6-0 200 GS Westerville, Ohio (South)
Rodjay Burns 29 6-0 180 FR Louisville, Ky. (Trinity)
Cam Burrows 16 6-0 205 RS-JR Trotwood, Ohio (Madison)
Michael Cibene 28 6-0 195 SR Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Pine Crest)
Gareon Conley 8 6-0 195 RS-JR Massillon, Ohio (Washington)
Wayne Davis 15 5-10 190 FR Norfolk, Va. (Lake Taylor)
Trevon Forte 21 5-8 185 JR Youngstown, Ohio (Cardinal Mooney)
Khaleed Franklin 20 6-1 205 SR Columbus, Ohio (Beechcroft)
Jordan Fuller 4 6-2 205 FR Old Tappan, N.J. (Old Tappan)
Eric Glover-Williams 19 5-9 178 SO Canton, Ohio (McKinley)
Elijah Goins 32 6-1 200 SR Concord, N.C. (Cox Mill)
Cin'Quan Haney 46 6-1 200 SR Dayton, Ohio (Chaminade-Julianne)
Malik Hooker 24 6-2 205 RS-SO New Castle, Pa. (New Castle)
Cameron Howard 15 6-1 205 GS Columbus, Ohio (Gahanna Lincoln)
Logan Kelleher 25 5-8 192 JR Cincinnati, Ohio (Moeller)
Marshon Lattimore 2 6-0 192 RS-SO Cleveland, Ohio (Glenville)
Michael Lawless 37 6-2 215 SR Dover, Ohio (Tuscarawas Central Catholic)
Joshua Norwood 28 5-10 185 RS-FR Valdosta, Ga. (Valdosta)
C.J. Saunders 17 5-11 180 SO Dublin, Ohio (Coffman)
Erick Smith 34 6-0 203 JR Cleveland, Ohio (Glenville)
Denzel Ward 12 5-10 185 SO Macedonia, Ohio (Nordonia)
Damon Webb 7 5-10 195 JR Detroit, Mich. (Cass Tech)
Jahsen Wint 23 5-10 190 FR Brooklyn, N.Y. (Erasmus Hall)

Powell was third on the team with 71 tackles and had a team-high three interceptions in 2015, but he somewhat surprisingly went undrafted. He latched on with the Seattle Seahawks as a free agent, however, and has impressed the coaching staff throughout training camp.

Ash's aggressive press-quarters scheme allowed Ohio State to use its speed and athleticism to its advantage and it's a huge reason why the Buckeyes were able to turn a woeful pass defense in 2013 into one of the nation's best in just two years. 

2016 Outlook

Outside of Conley, Ohio State's secondary will have minimal experience heading into the season. 

The other cornerback spot is still currently up for grabs with redshirt sophomore Marshon Lattimore, true sophomore Denzel Ward and redshirt freshman Damon Arnette all still battling for the starting job. Buckeyes cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said recently he hopes all three play meaningful snaps this season. At some point, however, one is going to have to separate from the others and play the majority of first-string reps.

At safety, things appear to be a little bit more defined at the moment. Junior Damon Webb and redshirt sophomore Malik Hooker are currently pegged in as starters — though head coach Urban Meyer has yet to officially announce that — while Erick Smith and Cam Burrows are running with the second-team defense.

Ohio State seemingly goes eight deep in the secondary with four corners and four safeties it feels comfortable with. But again, outside of Conley, there's little experience and that certainly cannot be ignored.

The Buckeyes hope their depth, and overall talent level, make up for that lack of experience.

"Our DBs, from top to bottom, is the best since I’ve been here," Lattimore said.

Final word

Ohio State's secondary might be the most interesting position group on the team in 2016. There are unknowns on a lot of different units, but the back four might just be the most intriguing. 

The coaches and players say there won't be a drop-off, but it's probably not realistic to see some decline in production — at least at the start. Rarely do teams lose three NFL-caliber players from the same secondary and pick up right where they left off. There's likely to be a slight learning curve here.

But once the Buckeyes figure things out, the potential is there to have another dynamic secondary. Conley can be an All-Big Ten performer at cornerback and don't be surprised if Hooker becomes the defense's breakout star based on his playmaking ability. 

The old stars are gone, but now new ones are hoping to emerge.

“I expect more than last year because honestly, we have the most talented secondary I’ve ever seen at Ohio State," Conley said. "All these guys are fast, they can move well, they’ve got good ball skills and I expect more this year than last year.”

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