Jyaire Brown didn’t know until late last week that he would be making his first career start against Wisconsin on Saturday.
Given the circumstances, Brown performed about as well as anyone could have expected from the true freshman cornerback.
The four-star recruit, who came to Ohio State by way of Lakota West High School in West Chester, Ohio, after spending most of his childhood in New Orleans, didn’t look like an inexperienced freshman who had played only 27 snaps as a Buckeye – all in backup duty – before his 52-snap outing against the Badgers. According to Pro Football Focus, Brown allowed only two catches for 14 yards on 25 coverage snaps in Ohio State’s 52-21 win over Wisconsin, in which he also recorded a pass breakup and a tackle.
Ohio State cornerbacks coach Tim Walton was pleased with Brown’s performance.
“He did well,” Walton said. “Obviously there's some things we have to correct, but he did well of handling those things.”
Despite his lack of experience going into the game, Brown’s teammates and coaches had confidence that he would be able to get the job done because of what they had seen from him on the practice field all year long.
“I could tell by when he first got up here that he was different just from the way he carried himself and how he competed every day at practice,” said redshirt freshman cornerback JK Johnson, who also made his first start against Wisconsin. “He just competes and he’s not scared to go against nobody.”
Ronnie Hickman said Brown’s practice performance in his first year as a Buckeye has reminded him of what he saw last year from Denzel Burke, who started all 13 of Ohio State’s 2021 games at cornerback as a true freshman.
“Since day one, he's come in, he's always kind of had that edge to him, that kind of grimy edge, that hard-working edge,” Hickman said. “So I knew that when his time was called, when his number was called, that he was going to be ready.
“He kind of showed signs like Denzel, the first few times he was out there, you're like, ‘Okay, this guy, you know, he’s got something to him.’ And Jyaire kept building off of that. So I mean, since our offseason, I was kind of looking for Jyaire to come in, because I wanted to see him live. I wanted to see him make some plays. So I'm just glad he got the chance to do it.”
Brown, who followed Burke’s lead from last year by becoming the first member of his freshman class to start a game this year, said seeing how well Burke played as a freshman helped him believe that he could also contribute as a first-year Buckeye.
“Just seeing him as a young freshman coming in and making an impact on his team and coaches believing in him being a freshman, that gave me a little knowledge that I could come in and make an impact,” Brown said Wednesday.
Brown’s opportunity to start his first game came because of injuries on the depth chart in front of him. Burke and Cameron Brown, Ohio State’s regular starting cornerbacks, were both unavailable for the Wisconsin game along with Jordan Hancock, who was expected to be the Buckeyes’ top backup cornerback this season but has been sidelined by an injury all year. With only six cornerbacks on scholarship this season, the Buckeyes had few other options but to start Jyaire opposite Johnson, with fellow true freshman Ryan Turner being the only other available scholarship cornerback.
Still, the Buckeyes could have chosen to move a veteran defensive back like Tanner McCalister or Cameron Martinez to cornerback. But they felt like they could trust Brown, even in a Big Ten opener that was expected to be more competitive than it was, because he showed in practice that he could hold his own against Ohio State’s elite talent at receiver.
“He's out there (practicing) every day. Just doesn't miss a rep. It wasn't all perfect, but he's out there competing every day in practice. And when you're going against Marvin (Harrison Jr.) and Jaxon (Smith-Njigba) and Julian (Fleming) and those guys and Emeka (Egbuka), that's really good work,” Ryan Day said. “And every day he was getting a little bit better, a little bit better, a little bit better and you could see his confidence.”
McCalister said Brown was prepared to go up against Ohio State’s top wideouts from his first practices as an early enrollee this spring.
“We got really good receivers and he’s not afraid to step out there even though he's a freshman. He's like, ‘I want Marvin.’ So when you see some things like that early on, he's very confident,” McCalister said. “I think that's why the coaches like him, that's why we like him. He's confident, he’s also poised for a freshman. He's willing to listen.”
“He just competes and he’s not scared to go against nobody.”– JK Johnson on Jyaire Brown
Brown arrived at Ohio State with the mentality that he wouldn’t back down from any competition he would face, and he’s had plenty of opportunities to take first-team reps in practice because of the Buckeyes’ injuries and lack of depth at the position. That enabled him to be confident going into his first start.
“I think that confidence comes from just practicing every day, going against the best receivers every day,” Brown said. “We see the best in the business every day in Zone 6, so I just try to use that to my advantage and prepare as if nobody else we play is as good as Zone 6.”
Ohio State’s wide receivers have certainly won their share of reps against Brown in practice, but he has embraced his ups and downs on the practice field as learning opportunities.
“Man, it was a challenge. But I took on that challenge and never shied away from that,” Brown said. “At the end of the day, that's only gonna get me better going against the best of the best every day. I knew I had to learn from those mistakes that I did make going against those type of receivers.”
Brown’s teammates have seen him approach his first year at Ohio State with a hunger to learn as much as he can and get better every day.
“Jyaire is just always putting in the time. He always wants to learn. He's always looking to learn more. And he's never stopped. He’s always looking to grow,” said defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau. “That’s a dog, you guys seen it, and he's just gonna continue to do his thing and keep going.”
Of course, there’s a big difference between practicing at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and playing in front of 105,000 fans under the lights at Ohio Stadium. But while Brown said he was nervous going into the game, he said those nerves quickly settled once the game got going and he turned his focus to doing his job.
“I had a little nerves, but not too much. Like I said, just revert back to our training and our practice and I felt confident in my game,” Brown said. “Usually after the first play, I'm pretty comfortable.”
Both Day and Walton were impressed by the composure Brown showed playing his first significant snaps in that setting, particularly after he was called for a very questionable defensive pass interference penalty in the second quarter. While Day berated the official to voice his displeasure with the call and show Brown he had his young player’s back, Brown maintained his focus and made a tackle on the very next play.
“The ref is not going to change the call no matter how mad you get or how upset you get. So we have to move on to the next play so it doesn't affect the next play,” Walton said. “That's a great job on his part, man, on being mentally tough to handle that situation.”
Bogus pass interference call against Ohio State. pic.twitter.com/9VyIJUh2DQ— Swapty Sports (@SwaptySports) September 25, 2022
When asked whether Brown had performed well enough against Wisconsin to earn more consistent playing time in the cornerback rotation going forward, Walton was noncommittal, saying “we kind of take that as it comes.” For now, how much playing time Brown gets could depend on when Burke and Cameron Brown are ready to return to the field.
Jyaire says he’s trying to focus less on how much playing time he’ll get than on taking advantage of the opportunities he gets when they come.
“I don't really try to get into too much extra, I just try to work as hard as I can, perfect my game and listen to everything Coach Walt, he's a great coach, I listen to everything he gives us, all the tools that he gives us,” Brown said. “And I try to apply that to my game. And I just work hard every day.”
That’s the mindset Walton wants Brown to have, and he believes Brown’s future at Ohio State will be bright if he continues to do the things he’s been doing so far.
“It's a daily progression. It's a daily prove-yourself-on-the-field type deal. But he did well. He's maturing as a young man. He puts a lot of great effort into it,” Walton said. “He's putting all the effort in and extra time in that you need to try to have the stuff ready.”