When Ohio State concluded its week in Pasadena, California, for the Rose Bowl, Damon Arnette didn’t catch the flight with the rest of the team.
Neither he nor any of his teammates anticipated he’d be back for a fifth season. He had plans of heading to the NFL after his redshirt junior season, and the wheels were already in motion to make that happen. Had Arnette not changed his mind after talking to Cris Carter and Jeff Hafley, Shaun Wade almost certainly would have joined Jeff Okudah as one of the two outside cornerbacks this season.
Instead, since Arnette returned for his fifth-year senior season, Wade finds himself back in a similar situation to where he was last season: playing just about every position in the defensive backfield.
Most of the time, Wade will line up as the nickelback. But he’ll also frequently move outside to play cornerback, swapping spots with Arnette who will move inside. He also can drop back as a safety, even though he isn’t practicing with Jordan Fuller and the other deep safeties.
On Tuesday, Hafley said he didn’t even know what position to list Wade at on the first depth chart, and given how Wade has bounced around, it’s hard to say with any certainty whether he was joking.
“Honestly, you could put nickel. You could put corner. You could put safety,” Hafley said. “Because it might look like all those things, right? Sometimes you see him there. Sometimes you see him there. Sometimes you see him there. Kind of like all the above. We'll probably just list him as a corner, I guess. Right?”
Right. At least until he lines up elsewhere.
“Shaun's a really interesting player because he's so versatile as far as he's shown that he's going to make plays at cornerback, shown that he can make plays at nickel and he's shown that he can play safety.”– Jeff Okudah on Shaun Wade
For the most part, though, it’s up to Wade to both own the slot cornerback spot and have a smooth transition when told by Hafley to swap positions with Arnette and move outside. Where he lines up will be determined by matchups, which is a running theme of Ohio State’s defensive strategy.
“I think you'll see Shaun inside,” Hafley said. “I think you'll see Shaun outside. It depends: who's their slot? Who's more suited to cover the slot? Who's more suited to cover the big receiver on the edge. I promise you, I'm being completely honest with you, it's who are we playing, who do they have, what's our best matchup. Let's put our guys in the best position to win with those matchups and then let's go play. And then we have guys that can rotate in. We've got talent.”
Against teams with shorter slot wideouts that rely on quickness, Arnette could line up as the nickelback with Wade moving outside. Wade has both the height and reach advantage on Arnette, often making him a better matchup against taller, lankier receivers.
Wade said playing cornerback and nickelback is basically “the same thing,” noting his comfort level at both positions. But he also believes it’s easier for him to play outside cornerback than in the slot, a thought that largely stems from the difficulty of facing a receiver that can take off either way and doesn’t have the sideline forcing him in one direction.
“Because the slot, first of all, he's off the ball,” Wade said. “And he has a two-way go. Most of the slots be faster than fast. They trust me at nickel because they know I know the defense, know the ins and outs of it. That's really the main reason. Damon knows it, too. He's more quicker laterally than me so that's why he has to learn how to play nickel. Because that's what he probably is going to be in the (NFL) or something. So that's why he has to learn it. But Damon, he's grasping it really well.”
Standing 6-foot-1 and weighing 194 pounds with lanky arms, Wade looks like the prototypical outside cornerback in the NFL. His pedigree as the No. 17 overall prospect and the second-ranked cornerback in the 2017 recruiting cycle backs up that idea.
But for at least one more season, he’s not solely an outside cornerback for the Buckeyes.
“Shaun's a really interesting player because he's so versatile as far as he's shown that he's going to make plays at cornerback, shown that he can make plays at nickel and he's shown that he can play safety,” Okudah said. “I think right now coach Hafley likes having him at nickel because it kind of is the best of both worlds, as far as playing safety, playing corner, and he's just so comfortable moving around as opposed to me. I haven't really had a chance to play nickel as much as Shaun or (Arnette), who didn't play too much nickel last year. So I think Shaun's been the most comfortable and the most, I would say, willing to go out there and play that position.”
He was willing to shift inside often last year with Taver Johnson, and he’s willing to do so again with Hafley.
But since he’s moving all around, even he doesn’t quite know how exactly to define his positions.
“I couldn't tell you,” Wade said. “Whatever they need me at, for real.”
Hafley both needs and wants him just about everywhere this fall.