As well as Denzel Burke played as a true freshman, it might be easy to forget that he was only the third-highest-rated cornerback in Ohio State’s recruiting class of 2021.
Before Burke soared up the depth chart, the freshman cornerbacks who seemed like the strongest candidates to make an immediate impact last season were Jakailin Johnson and Jordan Hancock. Both of them were ranked among the top 75 overall prospects in the 2021 recruiting class, making them the highest-rated pair of cornerbacks in an Ohio State recruiting class since the Buckeyes signed five-stars Jeff Okudah and Shaun Wade in 2017.
Yet while Burke ended up playing the most snaps of any Ohio State defender last season, Hancock and Johnson played only sparingly. Hancock played just 31 defensive snaps in 2021 – all in the second half of blowout wins – while Johnson played only eight defensive snaps, all against Akron, after which he did not play again for the rest of the year due to a shoulder injury.
While Burke went through a full offseason with the Buckeyes before his freshman season, Johnson and Hancock didn’t arrive until the summer, which likely impacted their chances of playing right away. They didn’t end up in last season’s three-deep at cornerback, which consisted of Burke, Cameron Brown, Sevyn Banks, Ryan Watts, Lejond Cavazos and Demario McCall.
Now that Hancock and Johnson are going through their first full offseason as Buckeyes and Banks, Watts and McCall are all gone from Ohio State, the door is wide open for both of them to compete for spots on the two-deep and potentially earn significant playing time as second-year Buckeyes. And it certainly sounds like they did what they needed to do in winter workouts going into spring football to put themselves in position to take advantage.
Asked last week to name some players who had made a big impression in winter workouts, Ryan Day singled out those two cornerbacks.
“A couple of the young corners, JK Johnson and also Jordan Hancock, were two of the guys that were recognized as most improved. I know I'm gonna forget some guys, but it was good to see those guys get recognized,” Day said. “They both put their work in last year. JK got the shoulder and Jordan spent some time on the scout team, really worked hard and they really put a great offseason in. So I know they're looking forward to getting on the field and practicing here.”
New Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is also impressed by what he’s seen from them so far.
“I didn't know them in the past, but I see them as becoming mature. Really quick guys, athletic guys. Quick, as I watched them in the offseason work,” Knowles said. “And they have a willingness to get better, and to take coaching, whether that's in the weight room or on the field. So I just think there's a ton of potential there.”
Even before the end of last season, it was evident Day liked what he was seeing from Johnson and Hancock. Day indicated on early signing day in December that their emergence was one reason why the Buckeyes opted not to pursue a transfer cornerback this offseason, even though they were briefly linked to LSU cornerback Eli Ricks before he transferred to Alabama.
“I feel really good about our young corners,” Day said on Dec. 15. “I thought we hit a home run last year.”
“I just think there's a ton of potential there.”– Jim Knowles on Jordan Hancock and Jakailin Johnson
The Buckeyes’ more experienced cornerbacks have also had good things to say about Hancock and Johnson over the past few months.
“They some dogs,” Brown said in December. “They like to hit. They love competing. They ain’t gonna back down from no one. They go against the best receivers in the country, they go against Chris (Olave) and Garrett (Wilson) and Jaxon (Smith-Njigba) and everybody, they don’t back down from them.
“A lot of people haven’t seen Jakailin or Jordan, but they’ll wake up soon. They’re the truth.”
Burke, like Brown, also described Johnson and Hancock as “dogs.”
“They love to compete. They love to play football. They don’t care who’s in front of them,” Burke said. “They’re going to line it up, give you their best every single time, and they’re like the definition of a DB. They just go out there with that mentality every time.
“They’re definitely getting more hungry. Definitely way more locked in in practice. Getting a lot more reps. Yeah, we’re gonna feel them this spring and summer, no doubt.”
Brown said Johnson and Hancock both have a mentality of “they want to be that guy,” which is the mentality he says cornerbacks needs to have.
“They want to dominate every rep,” Brown said. “They’ll go out there and be aggressive, they talk trash, they’ll cover you, they’ll hit you.”
Other Ohio State defenders who have taken notice of Hancock and Johnson include safety Ronnie Hickman and linebacker Steele Chambers. Hickman said in December that Hancock was one of the most improved players during the Buckeyes’ Rose Bowl practices.
“He’s a young guy, but he’s showing a lot of signs that he’s playing really good ball,” Hickman said of Hancock. “He has a knack for the ball as well, he makes a lot of plays on the ball. I really like his footwork on the line as well. And he brings a lot of energy.”
Chambers said Johnson, along with Brown, was one of the two fastest players on the entire team when he was asked that question prior to the Rose Bowl. Chambers said Johnson has run as fast as 23 miles per hour in workouts, according to the Zebra Technologies trackers the team uses during workouts.
“I still don't believe it,” Chambers said. “But I mean, if it's showing that, he's got to be close to that.”
With Burke and Brown both returning, Hancock (who played enough on special teams that he didn’t redshirt last year) and Johnson (who did redshirt last year) will likely have to wait another year for their guess to be a full-time starting job. It seems likely, though, that they could be the next men up behind Burke and Brown this season.
New Ohio State cornerbacks coach Tim Walton said last month that he wasn’t sure yet how much he would rotate at the position, but he indicated that would depend partially on how many cornerbacks prove they belong in the rotation. And if Hancock and Johnson continue to make the push that they’ve apparently started making on the practice field, there will be more incentive to get both of them on the field for regular snaps in the secondary this year.