Ohio State can thank Shaun Wade for not needing to hit the panic button.
Had the potential All-American cornerback remained opted out for the 2020 college football season, deciding to spend his time over the next few months preparing for the next NFL draft rather than playing as a redshirt junior, the Buckeyes’ already worrisome defensive backfield outlook would have taken a further hit. They’d already lost two first-round corners – Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette – and a multi-year starting safety in Jordan Fuller. Adding Wade to the list as a late departee would have forced new defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs to replace the entire secondary.
A worst-case scenario avoided.
But Coombs still has his work cut out for him in the secondary, especially at cornerback. The lack of veteran depth doesn’t leave him with a ton of personnel decisions.
“The core group of players that everybody has talked about are the guys that are gonna go,” Coombs said.
He’s referring to the five returning cornerbacks from last year’s roster: Senior Marcus Williamson, redshirt junior Shaun Wade, Junior Sevyn Banks, redshirt sophomore Cameron Brown and redshirt sophomore Tyreke Johnson. The three other cornerbacks on the roster – Ryan Watts, Cameron Martinez and Lejond Cavazos – are freshmen.
“I think we have a lot of talent back there in the back end,” Coombs said. “It’s just young talent. It’s inexperienced talent.”
Wade will start on the outside, giving the Buckeyes a true No. 1 cornerback. Williamson appears to have the edge to replace Wade as the slot corner.
But, who will start opposite Wade at the other outside corner spot? Let’s explore the options.
A Rotation of Sevyn Banks and Cameron Brown
The most likely scenario, at least as of now, seems to be Coombs going with both Banks and Brown in some sort of a rotation.
In his last stint coaching cornerbacks in Columbus, he showed how much he likes to cycle through cornerbacks during games to keep them fresh without worrying about a steep drop-off in talent. There’s no reason whatsoever to rotate Wade with anyone, especially given the lack of depth at the position. The spot opposite him, however, is a different story.
Both Banks and Wade played more than 170 defensive snaps in 2019 as second-year cornerbacks under Jeff Hafley, serving as the two primary backups for Okudah and Arnette.
They each stand out in their own ways. Banks is built like the prototypical cornerback as a 6-foot-1, 200-pound athlete with long arms. Coombs landed his commitment years ago, and now he’ll get to coach him with a filled-out body. Brown, at 6-foot and 192 pounds, is just slightly smaller than his third-year cornerback counterpart. He’s known for his top-level speed which has him clocking 40-yard dashes at around 4.3 seconds.
If neither of them is clearly better than the other, why not rotate them both?
Only Sevyn Banks
If for some reason Coombs decides he only wants to have one starter at cornerback opposite Wade, Banks might be the one who gets the first opportunity.
More so than Brown, who originally committed to Ohio State as a wide receiver, he has a long-standing history with Coombs that could benefit him now that the long-time defensive backs coach has returned to Columbus.
“He's got to be consistent in his performance and his preparation,” Coombs said. “But at the same time, I've been very, very pleased with Sevyn. I think he's an explosive athlete. I think he's big and long and very much in a tradition of the corners that we've had here at Ohio State, so I'm excited to coach him and see how he fares out there.”
Only Cameron Brown
Few could have predicted the ascent of Brown.
Transitioning from wide receiver to cornerback as a true freshman was hard enough, and then came a torn hamstring to put him on the mend. Under Hafley, however, his stock shot upward. By the time his redshirt freshman season kicked off, he had become the top backup outside cornerback to Okudah and Arnette. Last fall, he played 254 defensive snaps, which was more than any other backup cornerback.
So, it’s entirely reasonable to think he could earn a starting spot this fall. Is it as likely as Brown and Banks rotating? Nope. But it’s not outlandish, either.
Tyreke Johnson in the mix
Here’s the wild card.
If Johnson proves he deserves to either start or rotate with Banks and/or Brown, how does Coombs make it happen? So far, Johnson’s career hasn’t gone the way many hoped, considering his status as a one-time five-star recruit. Now back once again with Coombs, who recruited him, he has a chance to break through.
One way or another, there would be room for him in the rotation if he can start to put it all together.
“Tyreke came in as a five-star, that five-star pedigree,” Williamson said. “Tyreke's extremely talented. We've had some great guys in our unit, and sometimes it's hard to really break through. But Tyreke, he comes to work every day with his head down and he goes to work. We're really excited for Tyreke. He's been showing great things. We're excited to see him on the field this season.”
A Freshman in there?
To begin the season, it would qualify as a major surprise if one of the freshmen lined up with the starters across the field from Wade.
Simply due to the presence of just five returning cornerbacks and the 21-day mandated sit-out if a player tests positive for COVID-19, it’s incumbent on Coombs to get the first-years prepared to play as soon as possible. Yet nothing would indicate any of them are on the cusp of earning a starting spot.
Watts has impressive size that was only aided by Mickey Marotti, whom he says helped him add 20 pounds (185 to 205) while dropping body fat (12 percent to 8 percent) since enrolling in January. Cavazos possesses legitimate track speed. Martinez is already in the discussion as a backup slot cornerback. Don’t look for them to be starters quite so early in their careers, though.