Realistically, Ohio State’s defensive backs should probably be expected to have some growing pains this season.
Shaun Wade is the only returning defensive back who has been a regular starter for the Buckeyes, and even Wade is moving to a new position as he shifts to outside cornerback after previously playing slot cornerback. It shouldn’t come as a surprise if the collective inexperience of the secondary leads to some lapses on the back end of Ohio State’s defense in 2020, especially early in the year.
Kerry Coombs doesn’t want his defensive backs to be thinking like that, though. He wants them to be confident and to believe they will shut down their opponent on every single play every time they step on the field.
“More than anything, I’m looking for a gritty competitor, a kid that refuses to lose and plays with a fearless mentality of ‘My man catches no balls,’” said Coombs, Ohio State’s defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach, during an interview session on Tuesday. “That’s really the mindset that we have to have play in and play out.
“Physically, I love long, fast corners, and we all know that. But more than anything, I want a mentally tough guy who’s going to line up day in/day out, play in/play out, and have the confidence that his guy is not going to get open. He’s going to be in on-body coverage, and he’s gonna deny that reception.”
Finding players who have that mentality starts in the recruiting process, and even though Coombs spent the last two years coaching the Tennessee Titans’ defensive backs, many of Ohio State’s current defensive backs were recruited by Coombs out of high school. Coombs was previously Ohio State’s cornerbacks coach from 2012-17, so he was involved in the recruitments of most of the Buckeyes’ upperclassman defensive backs, including Wade, Sevyn Banks, Marcus Williamson, Tyreke Johnson and Marcus Hooker.
Even though he didn’t coach those players for the last two years, he’s liked what he’s seen from them since he returned to Ohio State in January, and he believes they’ve built upon those qualities that made Coombs want them to become Buckeyes in the first place.
“We’re developing that mentality, and I’m excited about these guys and their development of it,” Coombs said Tuesday. “But that is really what I’m looking for. It’s what I look for when I recruit. I like to recruit winners. I like to recruit guys that their guy doesn’t catch the ball, and if we do that, we’ve had good days.”
“More than anything, I’m looking for a gritty competitor, a kid that refuses to lose and plays with a fearless mentality of ‘My man catches no balls.’”– Kerry Coombs
Coombs wouldn’t say on Tuesday whether any particular defensive backs were standing out in that regard, but Williamson appears to be the frontrunner to replace Wade at slot cornerback while Banks, Brown and Johnson are also vying for the second starting spot at outside cornerback. Josh Proctor and Hooker are expected to play most of the snaps at safety.
Williamson is among the defensive backs who have bought into the mentality Coombs is preaching, saying that Coombs’ return to Ohio State has “rejuvenated” him.
“Every day, we go out with that thought process that we come here and want to be first-rounders and we want to win championships,” Williamson said. “And he’s not afraid to say it, we’re not afraid to say it, that’s the standard here and that’s what we always try to uphold.”
While Wade is the only proven commodity in the Buckeyes’ secondary, the defensive backs vying for a spot in the lineup all have the talent to be Ohio State’s next stars on the back end. Earning playing time won’t simply be determined by talent, however; Coombs will be looking for the players who work the hardest to prove they can be relied upon.
“The guys that run to the ball, the guys that hustle, the guys that spend time outside of this facility preparing themselves to play are gonna find a way onto the field,” Coombs said last week on the Ryan Day Show. “If they don’t make mental errors, and they give you 100% of effort. Everybody knows we recruit great athletes. If they show up ready to work and they work, they’re gonna play. And they’re gonna play a lot. And they’re gonna have great value here and at the next level. We’ve got a bunch of those guys right now.”
Day praised Coombs on Thursday for his work in helping those young defensive backs develop, and he’s looking forward to seeing who steps up in the next month leading up to the Buckeyes’ Oct. 24 season opener.
“It’s great that last year we were able to get those guys some reps under their belt, but it’s different when you’re a starter, and we gotta replace Jeff (Okudah) and we gotta replace Jordan (Fuller) and we gotta replace Damon (Arnette),” Day said. “Those were major-impact players for us – two first-rounders, and Jordan’s a starter right now in the NFL doing a great job. So we gotta go get some guys that are going to step up for us in the back end. But Kerry’s doing a great job with those guys. They’re competing every day in practice. So it’s gonna be fun over the next few weeks to watch them keep coming.”