Denzel Burke entered the 2022 season with as much hype as any Ohio State defender after he started every game as a true freshman in 2021 and earned Freshman All-American honors. Two games into his sophomore year, Burke’s performance hasn’t yet lived up to the expectations.
After limiting opponents to 344 yards on 64 targets in 13 games in 2021, Burke has already allowed 151 yards on 12 targets in the Buckeyes’ first two games of 2022, according to Pro Football Focus. Most noticeably, Burke gave up a 58-yard catch in game two against Arkansas State wide receiver Champ Flemings – longer than any catch he allowed as a freshman – when he got beat deep by Flemings and then proceeded to miss a tackle on Flemings after the catch.
Following that catch, which came after Burke had already been flagged twice for defensive pass interference, Burke was benched on the next defensive series for the remainder of the first half. It was the second time in two weeks that Ohio State pulled one of its starting defensive backs from the lineup after giving up a big play, as it did the same with Josh Proctor after he gave up a 51-yard catch to Lorenzo Styles on the first play from scrimmage against Notre Dame.
Burke eventually returned to the lineup for the start of the second half, though, and Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles was pleased with the way Burke responded after returning to the game. And he’s confident Burke will return to form going forward.
“Denzel is fine,” Knowles said Tuesday. “Those guys at corner, they live on an island. It's something that you know, 99.99% of the population could never do. It's a really tough, competitive situation. Sometimes you get into a little bit of a slump. You come out, reassess; he went back in and did better. So I think he's on track.
“When you're in such a high-pressure position, you're going to have some ups and downs. And it's really natural. And he's got a great attitude. And we trust him.”
Ryan Day shares Knowles’ confidence in the sophomore cornerback.
“I mean, Denzel is very, very talented. And you guys see what he's capable of,” Day said. “I think that he's gonna keep working to get better, and he certainly has some plays he wants back, but we're all confident that he will and he's ready to make those plays. But at the same time, he's got to identify what those things are that got him jammed up on those plays, and make the adjustments from there.”
“He's got a great attitude. And we trust him.”– Jim Knowles on Denzel Burke
Similar to what Ohio State safeties coach Perry Eliano said after the Notre Dame game about benching Proctor – who returned to the starting lineup against Arkansas State – Knowles said the Buckeyes took Burke off of the field because they didn’t want to leave him in a bad spot when they could tell he was not playing up to his ability.
“A guy struggles on one play, no big deal. You struggle on two plays and maybe you can just feel, you get a sense of a feel that he's a little bit behind. That's not a good feeling as a player,” Knowles said. “If I ever get into that situation as a play caller, where you always feel like you're one step behind, sometimes I'd like to say, ‘Hey, you know, can we take a break here?’ But I can't. I gotta call my way out of it. But when you have a player and you just see, you say, ‘Hey, man, he just seems a step behind, a little off,’ that's kind of the thing as coaches, that's our job to kind of get him out, reassess, get him back in, you know, so he can do it.”
Burke, who has been seen wearing a shoulder brace during games, missed some time during preseason camp due to injury. And while that hasn’t stopped Burke from playing 93 snaps in the Buckeyes’ first two games of the year, Knowles believes the time Burke missed in camp may be a contributing factor to his inconsistent play so far this season.
“It doesn't help, right?” Knowles said. “I mean, repetitions stack on top of each other and repetitions against quality opponents stack on top of each other, and when you miss a lot of time against our offense, those are certainly repetitions that can elevate your playing performance. So yeah, it doesn’t help.”
That said, all indications on Tuesday were that Burke will continue to start at cornerback for the Buckeyes as both Day and Knowles expect him to play at a high level as the season continues.
Knowles’ bigger concern right now remains with the Buckeyes’ cornerback depth, as they’ve had only five healthy scholarship cornerbacks for the first two games of the season with Jordan Hancock recovering from an injury. Day said Tuesday that Hancock could be back for this week’s game against Toledo, though, and Knowles indicated Hancock will be in the mix for playing time once he’s cleared to play again.
“We'd love to have Jordan back. I think he can really add to that,” Knowles said when asked how he feels about Ohio State’s cornerback depth behind Burke and Cameron Brown. “It is what it is. We're working with the guys we have and they're giving us everything that they have and we're going to keep getting better.”
With Hancock still sidelined against Arkansas State, JK Johnson took Burke’s place in the lineup when Burke came out of the game and ended up playing the most total snaps (50) of any Ohio State cornerback against the Red Wolves. Day was pleased by what he saw from Johnson in the first extended playing time of his Ohio State career.
“JK’s done a really good job,” Day said. “JK has a lot of skill. He can really run. It means a lot to him. He's practiced well, he's done a good job. I think that's one of the things that whether it's preseason or during the season, the only way you get better is to practice. And that sounds like a cliché from a coach, but it's true. JK has practiced. And because of that, he's allowed himself the opportunity to get out there and earn some snaps. Now what he does with those snaps, that's going to be between he and (cornerbacks coach Tim Walton), but I think you see his capability.”