When Ohio State football fans see Damon Arnette on the field this year, the redshirt sophomore cornerback could remind them of a recent Buckeye great at the position.
"He will remind you of Bradley Roby when he is on the field with his swagger and the way he plays," Ohio State cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said during an interview session on Wednesday.
Roby, a two-time All-Big Ten cornerback for the Buckeyes in 2012 and 2013, was known for being a confident playmaker who wasn’t afraid to talk some trash. Coombs believes Arnette will bring those same qualities to this year’s Ohio State secondary.
"He has got charisma, he has got juice," Coombs said of Arnette. "I love that about him. Every day I’ve got to pull him back, and he will still make some of those mistakes that come from momentary lack of focus, but I am telling you right now, he is a football player. And he’s a Buckeye. If you're going to go get in a fight, you’re going to take Damon with you."
Arnette played in all 13 of Ohio State’s games last season and played 181 snaps on defense, primarily at the nickel back position, but his playing time dwindled after some early-season struggles, most notably against Oklahoma when he was beaten in one-on-one coverage for a 35-yard touchdown.
This year, however, Arnette is in line to be part of Ohio State’s main three-man rotation at the cornerback position, along with junior Denzel Ward and junior college transfer Kendall Sheffield. While Arnette is competing with Sheffield to start opposite Ward as an outside cornerback, he says he continues to work inside as the slot cornerback when all three are on the field in nickel packages.
Arnette acknowledges he didn’t play as well as he needed to when he got opportunities to play last year. He says he tried too hard to be like last year’s starting cornerbacks, Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley, instead of playing within himself. Arnette is confident, though, that he’s gotten better in preparation for this season.
"I gave up some catches that I wasn’t supposed to give up (last year), and then I lost the spot. And that’s just how it is," Arnette said. "So coming back for this camp, I just know that I’ve just got to be on top of my stuff to make the team better, ‘cause last year I feel like if they kept me in, the team would have suffered."
While Arnette is currently in line for a prominent role in Ohio State’s secondary, he knows he must continue to prove he deserves it, as he has four true freshman cornerbacks behind him – including a pair of five-star recruits in Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade – who are pushing for playing time.
Arnette also feels he has a responsibility to set a positive example for the freshman cornerbacks.
"With all the younger dudes that came in, I just feel like that I have to play well for them to be good for them and be better for the team," Arnette said. "I didn’t have Okudah or Marcus (Williamson), Amir (Riep) and Shaun last year. I was the younger dude last year, and I was looking up to Marshon and Gareon. So maybe just having, knowing that some people are looking up to you, that just drives me and makes me want to become a better player for them."
While Arnette was only a three-star recruit out of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Coombs says Arnette "has always had really good physical skills" but "has always been a little bit lacking from a maturity standpoint." The difference in Arnette this year, that has put him in position to be a starter, is that he has grown up.
"I’m not the same person," Arnette said. "It took growing up to do. I feel like when it comes to football, I have a better understanding of everything. From what Coach Coombs teaches me and from what Denzel teaches me and the conversations that I’ve had with Marshon, Gareon and Eli (Apple, former Ohio State cornerback), they motivate me to become a better person."
“He will remind you of Bradley Roby when he is on the field with his swagger and the way he plays.”– Kerry Coombs
Coombs admits he doesn’t love the "swagger nonsense" and "trash talk stuff" that Roby once brought to Ohio State and Arnette brings now. Coombs hasn’t tried to take that quality away from Arnette, however, because he believes it’s part of what makes him successful.
"I don't want him to not be himself," Coombs said. "This is a position that has to be played with great confidence. You are out there on an island, and you got to cover that guy and you are all alone, so you better believe in yourself. And I absolutely want all of my guys to do that."
"I think Damon would be that way if he was going to work at IBM," Coombs added. "He would walk in and tell them all, 'Hey, I’m the best computer programmer in the room.' And everybody would be OK with that, for awhile, and then they would tell him to shut up and they would go about their business, which is what we do. But he is an engaging personality, he makes the room fun."