INDIANAPOLIS – Damon Arnette could have already participated in the NFL Scouting Combine last year.
Arnette nearly declared for the 2019 NFL draft until a last-minute conversation with Ohio State great Cris Carter, followed by a subsequent conversation with then-new Ohio State secondary coach Jeff Hafley, convinced him to stay with the Buckeyes for one more year.
More than a year later, and now that he has started the process of becoming an NFL player, Arnette is still thankful he made that decision, believing his improvement over the past year – both as a football player and as a person – has made him much more prepared to begin his professional career than he would have been a year ago.
“Every day I think about that decision that I made to come back, and how it could have been, and I‘m just thankful that I did come back,” Arnette said Friday during his interview session at the NFL Scouting Combine. “I’m more confident. I feel like I’m more technically sound. I’m smarter, I’m more mature on and off the field, and I feel like overall, I’m just more ready now than I was last year.”
Arnette blossomed in his fifth-year senior season as a Buckeye, shutting down opposing receivers with a level of consistency that he had not achieved in previous years. Even though he played the entire season with a cast on his right wrist after breaking it in preseason camp, Arnette missed only one game and recorded 35 tackles, eight pass breakups, one forced fumble and an interception against Indiana that he returned 96 yards for a touchdown.
He credits Hafley, who is now the head coach at Boston College, with helping him finally play up to his potential.
“Coach Hafley, he was a part of the big change I made in my life,” Arnette said. “He’s helped me become a smarter football player, a better football player, a better man. He showed me what it means to really play for your coach, for your position coach. And everything that he said to me has just been to help me, so I’ll always appreciate him for that.”
The biggest change for Arnette over the past year, though, has been his own mentality, both on and off the field. Arnette spent more time working on his craft as a football player while he also buckled down on his academics, enabling him to graduate from Ohio State in August with a degree in communications. After admittedly making some poor decisions during his earlier years at Ohio State, Arnette became more focused on taking care of business and finishing his career as a Buckeye the right way.
“I feel like my mentality is so much different than it was a year ago from now,” Arnette said. “I’m just proud of the way I changed my mentality so quickly, because without changing my mentality I don’t think I would be where I am today.”
Arnette’s mental transformation was noticeable to his Ohio State teammates, including fellow NFL Scouting Combine participant Jordan Fuller.
“He’s changed a lot,” Fuller said Friday. “I would say from the moment he said he was coming back to school, you could just see a whole change in his whole demeanor. He was doing community service like going to schools, talking to kids about his journey, what to do, what not to do. He was a huge leader in our DB room. By the end of our year, he was one of our biggest leaders on the whole defense.”
He drew regular praise last season from Hafley and Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, as well, for his work habits on and off the field and the toughness he showed in playing through his injury.
“I’m really proud of that kid,” Day said in September. “He’s been through a lot. He had to pass a bunch of classes academically last spring and this summer, and like you said, to press reset, he’s given himself completely to Jeff Hafley, and now he’s practiced really, really well. He’s prepared well.”
Despite his personal growth and those who have vouched for him, there have been some reports over the past couple months that have suggested NFL teams have concerns about Arnette’s character that could drop him down draft boards.
Arnette has taken to Twitter to fight back against some of those reports, and he doesn’t believe it’s fair that some draft analysts have slapped that label on him without explaining why.
Clowns been throwing dirt on my name my whole life. dont compare me to nun. I dont care bout no ones heart breaks I dont play this game for you, I do it for me and mines. I get after it. N thats on my son— Damon Arnette (@damon_arnette) February 14, 2020
“I’ve never gotten arrested, I’ve never had an abuse charge or nothing like that, so character concerns, I feel like that word is just used real loosely when you really think of what character concerns really are,” Arnette said. “I was just a young man that just needed to mature a little bit more, and I feel like that growth from 2018 to 2019, (that's) exactly what I did. I grew up, and I feel like the balance of maturity that I had off the field was able to translate to the play on the field.”
For the most part, though, Arnette has tried to ignore the noise, recognizing that the only evaluation that really matters is whether an NFL team believes in his character enough to draft him.
“I feel like the people that are saying it, they really don’t matter, because all the teams, I feel like they believe me,” Arnette said. “They believe everybody that’s telling them because they’re credible. They’ve been around me every day. And then the people out here that’s just talking, that’s just speculation. They don’t know me, they’ve never talked to me, they haven’t talked to anybody that said I’ve changed, so what they have to say really doesn’t matter to me, and I don’t think it affects me in any way.”
If Arnette can shine at the combine – both on the field when he works out Sunday, but probably most importantly, in his interviews with NFL teams – he has a chance to be selected as early as the late first round, and should at least be selected in the second or third round. That’s likely much higher than he would have been drafted a year ago, when he didn’t have a full season of top-notch play to demonstrate that he could be a future NFL starting cornerback.
Arnette said he’s not trying to think too much about where he will ultimately be drafted, but he knows that his decision to stay at Ohio State for one more year is about to pay off.
“I feel like a lot of things could be realistic for me at this point, so I’m just keeping my head down grinding, because I’m not done through the finish line yet,” Arnette said. “And when I look up, I feel like I’m going to land somewhere, so wherever I land, I’ll be thankful, and I know it’s going to be sooner than where it would have been last year.”
“I feel like my mentality is so much different than it was a year ago from now.” – Damon Arnette on his growth in his final year at Ohio State
Carter, who has known Arnette since his days at St. Thomas Aquinas High School and who bluntly told Arnette a year ago that he was “no All-American,” has been happy to remind Arnette who encouraged him to make that decision.
“He said, ‘I told you so,’” Arnette said. “He was in my ear about when I made my decision to come to Ohio State, and he’s never really steered me wrong. He’s always been there when it’s comes to making major decisions in my life. I respect him for that. I love him for that.”
As Arnette goes through the combine and the NFL draft process, potentially less than two months away from making life-changing money and achieving his dream of playing professionally, he also has some new motivation. Arnette became a father last month, and now, the opportunity to provide and set an example for his son Tyson – who Arnette calls “Ace” because he’s Arnette’s first child – gives him all the more reason to stay focused on being both the best football player and person he can be.
“If y’all have kids, y’all know what it feels like to look at your child for the first time and that instant sacrifice that you’ll give for him,” Arnette said. “I’ve had a natural chip on my shoulder my whole life, and my goal of playing football hasn’t been to prove people wrong but to prove myself right, so with that on top of now having a son, things is different now. So, that fire in my eye grew, that burn that I have for the game grew some more because I’m no longer doing it for myself, I’m doing it for my little man.”