The question could not even be finished at Tuesday’s press conference before Kerry Coombs delivered his answer.
Ohio State’s defensive coordinator fired out a two-letter word when asked if he ever imagined he’d start a true freshman at cornerback, let alone in a season-opening road game against a conference opponent, and he repeated it a second time to underscore the irregularity of the circumstance.
“No,” Coombs said. “No.”
He did exactly that on Thursday though, as Denzel Burke – the 19th-most highly-rated recruit in Ohio State’s class of 2021 – took the field in Minneapolis on the very first possession of the Buckeyes’ season opener. In fact, the Buckeye coaching staff could hardly take him off the field at Huntington Bank Stadium, as Burke played more snaps than any other corner, and tied senior safety Josh Proctor for the most reps among Ohio State defensive backs.
By game’s end, Burke led the Buckeyes with three pass breakups, including one in the end zone, although he was flagged for pass interference in nearly the same spot on the very next play as the Minnesota offense sought to exploit his inexperience.
“The guy on the other side wearing a headset knows who the freshman is, so you better be ready, because they’re gonna come after you,” Coombs said. “We talked long and hard about that. He doesn’t strike me as a player in any practice environment that has shown fear, which is huge. I talked to him at length about being nervous, and he said he was, which I was glad to hear because if he said he wasn’t, he’d be lying, which would be a much bigger problem. Being nervous just means it’s important to you, and it was important to him to play well.”
Burke’s starting status was likely the result of injuries to projected starters Cameron Brown and Sevyn Banks, but even in rotation with redshirt freshmen Ryan Watts and Lejond Cavazos and sixth-year senior Demario McCall, the true freshman was the lone corner to earn a champion grade from the Buckeye coaching staff Monday.
“On the road in the Big Ten is a challenging environment any time, but for it to be your first game and your first game as a Buckeye and your first game as a college football player – compounds all those things,” Coombs said. “I thought they handled the pressure and the environment of that well.”
Coombs said he would’ve liked his corners to have had a bit more experience under their belt before starting against a legitimate threat in the Big Ten West Division, but said “that’s the way it is” at times in college football.
However, Coombs, head coach Ryan Day and Burke’s teammates on both sides of the ball recognized something special in the Arizona native far before the 2021 season officially kicked off this past week.
“He’s competed since he’s got here. He practices really, really hard, and he deserved to start. He did,” Day said. “It’s based on how he worked in the spring, how he worked in the preseason, and I think if you ask our receivers, he’s a very, very talented young man.”
It turns out Day was not bluffing.
Senior wide receiver Chris Olave said he’s a “huge fan” of Denzel as a fellow product of the West Coast, and took note of Burke’s propensity for constantly asking questions and putting in extra work ever since he entered the program back in January. Olave said he wasn’t surprised to see Burke start Game 1, and said the true freshman is “one of the top guys we have” at the cornerback position.
“He’s a pro to me. In camp he’s running with the first team, he’s battling me and Garrett (Wilson), talking mess, playing with his swag,” Olave said. “Just not getting too big-headed, just staying down, trying to keep working. That’s what I just keep telling him, to keep working. He’s gonna be great, so I can’t wait to see that.”
Coombs said there wasn’t one particular moment in the preseason in which he knew for sure Burke could start right away – even though he had “a bunch of” pass breakups in the team’s first scrimmage – but that Burke’s willingness to compete with Olave and Wilson gave him a good idea of what type of player he had on his hands.
“He had a really good spring, so we knew we had something,” Coombs said. “Had a really good offseason, and he continued to play all throughout training camp. He continued to line up and play man-to-man against some of the best receivers that you will ever see, and he competes. Got a lot of growth and lot of improvement ahead of him, but he had a great camp, he had a good night Thursday and we’re looking forward to more of those in the future.”
Exactly how much of a hit Burke’s snap count will take when Banks and Brown return from injury is uncertain, but Coombs said he would “expect to see him in the rotation” no matter who is available for Ohio State down the line.
Even if he never intended to start a true freshman at corner, Coombs wasn‘t particularly surprised by Burke’s first-game success.
“To be honest with you, I expected him to play well. I think that it would have been disappointing had he not,” Coombs said. “And so I don’t think I look at him any differently, I’m trying to figure out how to help him get better for this week.”