Given the expectations set at the position, one could be excused for finding the stats tallied by Ohio State’s wide receiver corps in Saturday’s spring game a bit underwhelming.
Although the wealth was spread considerably due to the nature of the exhibition, with 17 players in total catching at least one pass, no one wideout caught more than four passes, and walk-on Xavier Johnson led all Buckeyes in receiving yards with just 50. Jaxon Smith-Njigba had a short day of work as expected, but even Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka couldn’t rival their own spring game performances from the previous year as true freshmen, finishing Saturday’s game with a combined five catches for 48 yards.
The Buckeyes’ quarterback trio amassed 390 yards altogether, albeit on a whopping 67 pass attempts, but Ohio State’s cornerback play often shined during an intrasquad scrimmage that gave the Buckeye coaching staff plenty of confidence in the unit as the summer approaches.
“I was very pleased. We’re continuing to work on playing close to people, throwing punches, being aggressive with our coverage,” defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said of Ohio State’s cornerbacks after the spring game. “And that may be a little bit of a change for them, and they’re adapting to it. We’re going against the best wide receiving corps in the country, so I think it’s gonna continue to be a reason for them to get better because of who they see every day in practice. And we’re gonna continue coaching aggressive coverage.”
Ohio State ranked 96th in the country against the pass a season ago, giving up an average of 245.8 yards per game through the air, but cornerback play wasn’t necessarily the reason why. Denzel Burke emerged as a star at the position as just a true freshman, starting every game for the Buckeyes, and Cameron Brown showed flashes of great play at times despite battling through injuries all year.
Both of those players return in 2022, and even after the transfers of Sevyn Banks and Lejond Cavazos, Ohio State’s depth at the position looks solid with second-year corners Jordan Hancock and Jakailin Johnson stepping up and freshmen Jyaire Brown and Ryan Turner also holding their own in the spring game.
Burke and Hancock stood out in particular among the players in Tim Walton’s position room on Saturday, as both broke up two passes to account for nearly half of Ohio State’s 10 PBUs on the day.
One memorable moment saw Burke deny Harrison a touchdown catch with tight coverage on a throw to the end zone, and Hancock also tallied a tackle for loss with a textbook takedown of Miyan Williams in wide open space to set the line of scrimmage back four yards for the Buckeye offense.
Echoing many of Knowles’ own sentiments, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day liked what he saw from the group not only in the spring game, but all throughout camp.
“All those guys have had a really good spring,” Day said. “I’ve been really impressed with the corners and safeties, they show up and get their hands on balls and be aggressive – you saw some of that today, you saw the potential. We certainly have a long way to go as we get into May, June, July and August, but I think they’ve really grabbed onto what Coach Walton and Coach (Perry) Eliano have been doing with them. They’re playing with confidence, they’re aggressive and you can see the talent level.”
Hancock played sparingly as a true freshman, logging just 31 snaps last season (700 fewer than Burke), but after a full offseason that will include his first winter and spring training periods in Columbus, he may quickly be gaining ground on his contemporaries.
“I feel like I had good growing pains. I feel like I needed to feel things out, because I came in the summer so my body wasn’t ready,” Hancock said on April 8. “But I feel like my body has taken a big jump, and I feel like physically I’m ready. Playing special teams and getting my feet wet, just getting used to the speed of the game, I feel like that was a good change.”
According to Brown, the veteran of the unit as a fifth-year senior in 2022, Burke has made strides of his own going into year two. Brown called Burke “the most mature freshman I’ve ever seen,” and said his self-belief has soared this offseason.
“Denzel’s always been confident, but his confidence is off the roof right now,” Brown said this spring. “He finally understands the game and he sat down and realized, ‘OK, I got a year under my belt, I was competing with everyone’; Chris (Olave), Garrett (Wilson), the list goes on with people from last year. But now that he gets to go this year, his confidence is already through the roof because this is all first-round receivers that he went against. Now he (has another year), it’s about the same. So he’s ready.”
Given Knowles’ comments on the change in coverage style, it’s clear that Walton’s philosophies differ from those of Kerry Coombs and recent secondary coaches of the past at Ohio State, but the early returns seem to indicate it hasn’t been a big issue for the Buckeye corners.
Already imbued with the unmistakable confidence Brown described, the play of Ohio State’s cornerbacks certainly seems to be among the lesser areas of concern for the Buckeye defense as it continues its transition this offseason.
“I always see them going out there and competing. They compete with each other and they compete with the receivers. Like I said last year, they’re not afraid of anybody,” Brown said of his younger teammates. “They’d go out there and go against the best receiver. It don’t matter, the best receiver in the NFL, they’ll bring him out – (DeAndre Hopkins) or anybody, really – they’ll go against them because they just have that feeling and their confidence is so high.”