Damon Arnette hasn’t always lived up to his potential in his first four years at Ohio State, and he doesn’t hesitate to admit that now.
While Arnette has seen regular playing time in Ohio State’s secondary for each of the last three years, including the past two seasons as a starting cornerback, he’s had his share of struggles on the field. He hasn’t always had the best reputation off the field, either.
As Arnette looks back on his first four years as a Buckeye, he believes the way he lived his life off the field affected the way he played on the field.
“I feel like a lot of dudes, they just mature faster than others, and I feel like with me, I’ve always just been an on-edge type of person,” Arnette said Friday following Ohio State’s first practice of preseason camp. “I just realized that playing with fire, you will get burnt a lot of different ways, it just ain’t worth it. And a part of learning from that stuff is going through certain things and just learning from those mistakes.”
In the past, Arnette said, he was at times more focused on going out and doing things he shouldn’t have been doing off the field than on being the best he could be as a football player. But now that he is entering his final season as a Buckeye, Arnette says he is more focused than he’s ever been on taking care of business in every aspect of his life.
Away from the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, Arnette has become more inclined to stay at home watching Netflix or chatting with his girlfriend on FaceTime than to go out late at night. He’s spent more time focusing on his academics; as a result, Arnette graduated from Ohio State with his degree in communications on Sunday.
On the football field and at the facility, Arnette has become a player his coaches trust and his teammates look up to as a leader.
“If I woke up today and just met him and no one ever told me anything about him, I would think you were crazy if you told me there were issues with him,” first-year secondary coach and co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley said when asked about Arnette this summer. “He has done everything that we have asked him to do. I think he had a really good spring … I think he has a chance to have a really good year. He’s made of the right stuff. He’s tough. He loves football. He might like football more than most people I have ever been around.”
As Arnette first told Eleven Warriors in February, he originally planned on leaving Ohio State after last season and entering the 2019 NFL draft. But after a call from Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver and Ohio State great Cris Carter – who Arnette has known since he was a kid – and a meeting with Hafley a couple days later, Arnette decided it was in his best interest to stay at Ohio State for his fifth-year senior season.
Carter told Arnette bluntly that he was “no All-American,” and Arnette said those words “cut deep.” So when Arnette made the decision to remain at Ohio State for one more year, he also made a vow to himself to make the most of it.
“Having the thoughts of leaving, the question was, was I the best player I know I can be? Did I leave everything out there? And do I regret anything? And I couldn’t check all of those boxes,” Arnette said Friday. “So then I was like, ‘All right, can you live with that?’ And then I realized like, ‘Nah, I can’t.’ I feel like I’m not doing Buckeye Nation and just my teammates a service if I had left on the note I would have left last year.”
Arnette’s play at Ohio State hasn’t always been great, and he’s drawn his share of criticism from fans as a result. But he’s confident his last season at Ohio State will be his best, and his teammates are too.
Multiple Ohio State defenders, including fellow defensive backs Jordan Fuller and Shaun Wade, have named Arnette as one of the Buckeyes’ top leaders this offseason. Jeff Okudah, who is set to start opposite Arnette this season, has likewise seen a new level of focus in Arnette.
“I see someone that’s just fired up,” Okudah said of Arnette. “He’s ready to go. He hears everything that people say about him, and when people just poke at you, poke at you, poke at you, I told him that he has a chance to look at all his critics in the eyes and tell everyone, put some respect on his name. So I think that’s what he’s set out to do, and I have the most faith that he can accomplish that.”
“If I woke up today and just met him and no one ever told me anything about him, I would think you were crazy if you told me there were issues with him.”– Ohio State secondary coach Jeff Hafley on Damon Arnette
Arnette believes that having the opportunity to learn from Hafley, who spent the past seven years coaching in the NFL before joining Ohio State’s coaching staff in January, is also setting him up for success this season.
“The technique that he teaches is what a lot of us do naturally, and I would have hated myself if I would have left and saw everybody else doing what we’re doing now and I was somewhere else,” Arnette said.
Arnette’s career at Ohio State has been far from perfect, but he’s using the lessons he’s learned from his past mistakes to not only be a better player on the field and a better person off the field himself, but also to set an example for his younger teammates and help them when they might run into trouble themselves.
“I try to use my experiences to help a lot of the young guys, now that I may see just going through some of the certain things that I went through, and I feel like just maybe the message should come off a little bit differently maybe than I received it,” Arnette said. “So I try to just use what I know I rejected and what I accepted to help others.”
In addition, Arnette has also made an effort to help younger people by making multiple visits this offseason to local middle schools, where his status as an Ohio State football player makes him someone that kids might look up to.
Arnette said his message to those kids was simple: “Don’t be young and dumb.”
“Just seeing how I can use my platform to really help somebody younger than me, in ages of my life when I knew I was getting in the most trouble, it just really felt good to just try to help somebody else,” Arnette said. “What are they, 12-13 years old? They’ve only been 12-13 years old one time, so when an old head says something to them, just consider what they’re saying because they’ve been there before, and they don’t know what it’s like to be 20 years old with a kid or 20 years old paying bills and stuff like that, so that’s important, just being able to take advice.”