Ohio State’s passing defense hasn’t played up to expectations through its first six games of the 2018 season, and the play of its cornerbacks has been one reason why.
Kendall Sheffield, Damon Arnette and Jeffrey Okudah, the three cornerbacks who rotate at the two outside positions, have all given up their share of big receiving plays this season. Shaun Wade, Ohio State’s top slot cornerback, has had his ups and downs too, including being beat by Penn State wide receiver KJ Hamler on a slant route that went for a 93-yard touchdown, tying the longest play allowed by Ohio State’s defense this season and in school history.
At the same time, they haven’t made many big plays of their own, combining for just two interceptions (one each by Sheffield and Wade).
Ohio State currently ranks 58th in passing yards allowed per attempt (7.0), 60th in passing yards allowed per game (222.2) and tied for 85th in passes of 20-plus yards allowed (20), and in order to improve those numbers, their cornerbacks needs to be more consistent in coverage – a fact that cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson acknowledged in his first meeting with the media this season on Tuesday.
“I don’t think any of us are,” said Johnson, who is in his first year back coaching Ohio State’s cornerbacks, when asked if he is happy with the way they have played this season. “Because we’ve had our share of balls and we’ve been in position. We’ve had our share where we have been in position and we’ve gotten some (defensive pass interference penalties). That’s out of our control. And then with some other situations where we weren’t. So I think we’re all understanding, we’ve got to get a lot better.”
Arnette, who also met with the media for the first time this season on Tuesday, agreed with his coach that the cornerbacks have not played up to their expectations.
“We’re definitely not to our potential yet,” Arnette said. “There’s just little things we got to adjust to play better.”
Some growing pains were to be expected with Ohio State’s cornerbacks this season. They lost former cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs, who left to become the secondary coach of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, and one of the five first-round NFL draft picks he developed in Columbus, Denzel Ward, who was the Buckeyes’ top cornerback and a first-team All-American last season.
Both Johnson and Arnette are confident, though, that their unit remains capable of playing to Ohio State’s standard – which, as is the Buckeye cornerbacks’ slogan, is to be the “Best in America.”
“I would take these guys over anyone else,” Johnson said. “Because I know what we’re capable of. I know they’re going to get better. As hard as they work in everything they do, I have the utmost confidence. We may not be Denzel-ish, because again, a guy like that and Marshon (Lattimore), Malcolm Jenkins, those guys come around every so often. But these guys can get it done. There’s no doubt about it.”
Arnette said he has seen “flashes of greatness” from his fellow cornerbacks during practice, but now, they need to be able to translate that to the games on Saturdays.
“There’s just certain things in practice that we have been practicing on like just making the play on the ball,” Arnette said. “Because dudes not just outright beating us like that, it’s just the ability to go in the air and make a play on the ball, and that’s just something that we’ve been emphasizing during practice the past two weeks, so I feel like there’s going to be a difference in the play when it comes to making a play on the ball.
“That’s the biggest of the little things, because I feel like, we getting hands on dudes, we battling the dudes all the way up until the ball is being caught by the receiver. So just as far as just getting our head around, looking back for the ball and taking it out the air, that’s just something that, I feel like that has to get better.”
“I know they’re going to get better. As hard as they work in everything they do, I have the utmost confidence.”– Taver Johnson on Ohio State's cornerbacks
With the struggles that Ohio State’s cornerbacks have had in the first half of the regular season, some have questioned whether the Buckeyes should adjust away from their philosophy of playing press man coverage. That’s a philosophy that Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, co-defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and Johnson all believe in, though, and they’ve all been adamant that they’re not going to change the way the Buckeyes play.
“That’s who we are,” Johnson said. “That’s what we signed up for. And we’ll have some situations where we will play some zone, we will play some bail, but yes, that’s who we are. Our guys understand that, and they know that we have to get it done. The defensive lineman knows how he’s got to take on a double team. He’s got to get that done. There’s no situation where we’re going to move him a ton. So yeah, that’s part of our job. That’s our job, that’s what we signed up for. And we can. There’s no doubt about it. And that’s not changing.”
Ohio State cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson explains the Buckeyes philosophy for covering the deep ball. pic.twitter.com/30zmj4UAHj— Dan Hope (@Dan_Hope) October 9, 2018
Meyer acknowledged this week that the type of coverage the Buckeyes expect their cornerbacks to play is challenging, and that they need to get better at it, but that hasn’t changed his belief that they should continue to play that way – a philosophy they already used, and had success with, when Coombs coached the cornerbacks.
“Press coverage is a very hard skill,” Meyer said. “The reason we do it, we want to challenge every throw. And we've had some excellent corners around here. I believe we have excellent corners now. It's a skill that requires an incredible amount of work. And when you're good, it's great. Press coverage, where you disrupt passes constantly.
“That takes a lot of work,” Meyer said. “It's obviously something we believe in and we will continue to believe in it as long as we can. But that's a skill set that's very difficult that we ask them to do. And we just gotta continue to work to get better. Because the risk/reward on that, once you get great at that, you're playing great defense now.”
Johnson also acknowledged that opposing offenses have been targeting the Buckeyes’ secondary with deep shots, and will continue to do so because of the success that some other offenses have had against them. He doesn’t believe they need to change the way they play, however; he just believes they need to play better.
“The way we play, and everyone knows that we’re going to be in press man, it’s going to happen,” Johnson said. “Now that we’ve had some DPIs, we’ve had a couple completions here or there, people are going to game plan for that and we understand. We knew it was coming before, we know it’s coming now, and the only thing you can do is just make sure you work your operation from the line of scrimmage, to the release, to the finish, and you just have to be consistent with those things, and just having guys understand, that’s part of it.”
Johnson believes that the effort his cornerbacks put in day in and day out will ultimately lead to better results in game action in the second half of the season.
“The guys, they’re really, really trying to do exactly what we ask them to do,” Johnson said. “Our consistency is the one thing that we’ve got to just really, really fine-tune and really, really get better at. And that’s hard as a corner. That’s hard as a player. But for sure, at that spot, because every play is so different. It’s like being a golfer, every shot is totally different. I’ve got to make sure that I’m just consistent and disciplined with my eyes and my technique every single play.”