Going into the 2020 season, one of the biggest areas of concern for Ohio State’s football team will be the amount of talent and experience it has to replace on defense, especially in the secondary.
That concern became a little less dire on Saturday, though, when Shaun Wade announced his decision on Saturday to stay with the Buckeyes for another year.
Even with Wade remaining in school, Ohio State is set to lose seven starters from its 2019 defense. Defensive end Chase Young and cornerback Jeff Okudah, both sure-fire early first-round picks, opted to leave early for the 2020 NFL draft, while defensive tackles DaVon Hamilton and Jashon Cornell, linebacker Malik Harrison, cornerback Damon Arnette and safety Jordan Fuller were all seniors.
That leaves the Buckeyes in a position of needing less proven players to step up at all three levels of their defense, but that need would have been even more glaring if they lost Wade.
Up front, the Buckeyes will be buoyed by the return of Jonathon Cooper, who started all year at defensive end in 2018 but opted to take a redshirt and return for 2020 due to injuries this past season. Thanks to Larry Johnson’s deep rotation, Ohio State has plenty of other defensive linemen who have mixed in for significant playing time, as well.
At linebacker, Ohio State will have two returning starters in Pete Werner and Tuf Borland, while fellow senior Baron Browning has also seen extensive playing time in the rotation over the past two seasons.
In the secondary, though, Ohio State faced the possibility of entering next season without a single defensive back who has started more than one game for the Buckeyes – and doing that all with a new secondary coach following Jeff Hafley’s departure to become the head coach at Boston College.
Wade was already one of Ohio State’s most important defensive players this past season – his absence from the lineup was noticeable when he missed the Michigan game due to injury and was ejected from the Clemson game for a targeting penalty – and now, he could be as vital as any player to the success of the Buckeyes’ defense in 2020.
One reason for that is his versatility. Wade played almost exclusively at slot cornerback this past season, but he also has experience playing outside cornerback and even safety, giving him the ability to line up anywhere in the secondary. Wade indicated during his announcement interview with Lettermen Row on Saturday that he expects to play outside cornerback, where he will likely replace Okudah as the Buckeyes’ No. 1 cornerback and match up with opponents’ top receivers next season. But he’ll give Ohio State’s new defensive backs coach a valuable chess piece he can move around.
Furthermore, as a fourth-year defensive back who has played far more snaps than anyone else in the secondary, Wade will be looked upon as a leader for the group who can make the other defensive backs around him better.
Ohio State still needs three other new defensive backs to step up as new starters around Wade; Cameron Brown and Sevyn Banks are the top candidates at outside cornerback, Amir Riep might be the frontrunner to take over at slot cornerback if Wade moves outside and Josh Proctor is the likely frontrunner to replace Fuller at safety. Marcus Williamson, Tyreke Johnson and Marcus Hooker are also among the defensive backs who could potentially play big roles on the back end of the Buckeyes’ defense next year.
All of those defensive backs are talented, but keeping a versatile playmaker in Wade who has already proven his ability to play at an All-Big Ten level and who the Buckeyes already know they can trust is unquestionably a huge boost for the 2020 defense.
Effectively, the Buckeyes just received a commitment from a five-star recruit who already has multiple seasons of proven experience playing at a high level, and with another full offseason of development in front of him, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him follow in Okudah’s footsteps by becoming one of the most dominant cornerbacks in the country.
Whether Ohio State’s defense is one of the best of the country again next season will depend largely upon whether its new starters can step up and play at the same level that the defenders who are leaving the program did this past season. But the return of Wade – who will be looking to prove he should be an early first-round draft pick after betting on his ability to improve his stock – makes that possibility seem more realistic.