Injuries are already spelling trouble for Ohio State's cornerback room early in preseason camp.
At a post-practice press conference Tuesday, first-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said the position group is "a little banged up," which has led to second- and third-year safeties Jantzen Dunn and Cameron Martinez taking reps at corner.
Knowles doesn't expect the health issues or general depth concerns about the unit to be quick fixes, either.
“I think it’s long-term. I think we’re gonna have to keep those guys fresh," Knowles said. "What are there, six scholarship guys I believe? So we’re gonna have to dual-train. Like Jantzen, Cam, they are guys we’re gonna have to dual-train, because we’re gonna get corners who run all the time back and forth. We’re gonna get the soft tissue injuries, and we need to be fresh. It’s definitely something we’re keeping an eye on and trying to make sure we get multiple guys there repetitions.”
Knowles didn't specifically name any Buckeye cornerbacks that are dealing with injuries. But second-year defensive back Jordan Hancock, projected to be among the top three corners on the depth chart (along with Denzel Burke and Cameron Brown) this season, was seen limping off the field with an apparent leg injury after Monday's practice.
When asked Tuesday about Hancock’s prognosis, Knowles said "that's above my paygrade."
Ohio State was already light on corners given that it has just six on scholarship, two fewer than Ryan Day and company would typically prefer. The Buckeyes reportedly backed off of bringing in high-profile LSU transfer corner Eli Ricks this offseason despite his interest in the program (he ended up at Alabama), and top 2022 cornerback recruit Terrance Brooks flipped from Ohio State to Texas on National Signing Day.
The Buckeyes' two true freshman cornerbacks, Jyaire Brown and Ryan Turner, will also likely need time to develop before they are ready to play major roles as they enter the program as the No. 192 and No. 341-rated prospects in the country, respectively.
Aside from Burke, Brown, Hancock, Brown and Turner, Ohio State also has JK Johnson on scholarship, but Knowles said it's “too soon to tell” how much he could help this season after missing most of his freshman season with injury.
Given the high volume of snaps Ronnie Hickman, Tanner McCalister, Josh Proctor and Kourt Williams are expected to receive at Ohio State's three safety positions this season – not to mention Lathan Ransom vying for time as well – it only makes sense that the Buckeyes would experiment with Martinez and Dunn at cornerback.
"I asked the (defensive backs) coaches and the coaches talked about it, and between Perry (Eliano) and Tim (Walton), they decided those are guys that have exhibited that kind of foot quickness and speed and athleticism to fit the corner position," Knowles said. "And I thought they've looked pretty good, I really do."
Knowles spoke particularly highly of Martinez, who has bounced around positionally during his college football career after playing quarterback in high school. Martinez started two games for the Buckeyes at nickel safety last season but is behind McCalister on the depth chart entering this season. Wherever Martinez has been on the field, though, Knowles has liked what he's seen.
“Very impressive. I was impressed with him since I first saw him. I think he's got a quickness, he's got a toughness, he's got a mental attitude and fortitude,” Knowles said. “He's a guy who's a playmaker and focused and doesn't get upset, doesn't panic. Makes the play, comes back, makes another one. He doesn't say much but you can see he's locked in.
“He understands everything. I can't remember him really making a mistake at all. He's quiet, but I mean he understands everything. He's always locked in. He's always 100% locked in."
While Martinez and Dunn could help the cause at cornerback, they won't be able to help their teammates heal any faster, and neither will the pace Knowles wants to go at in the lead-up to the season.
Knowles said he's only installed "25%" of his defensive scheme since arriving at Ohio State, and in order to get the Buckeyes prepared for Notre Dame, he won't pull any punches in practice over the next month.
“We have to keep going full-steam ahead," Knowles said. "We may tweak the plan a little bit as we go along, but we don’t have the luxury that you have in the spring to just say, ‘Hey, let’s push one day, pull back the next.’ We can’t do that right now. We’re push, push, push – maybe a little bit lighter push – but then push. So we’re not backing off.”