Ohio State’s cornerback situation didn’t cost it against Wisconsin, and it’s not likely to negatively impact Saturday’s matchup with Rutgers’ 111th-ranked passing offense.
Considering the ongoing injury issues and general lack of depth at the position, though, it will remain among the biggest question marks on the roster until Ohio State’s corners are tested by an elite pass attack at some point this season.
The Buckeyes were down both starters for the Big Ten opener as Denzel Burke and Cameron Brown sat out with ailments, and Jordan Hancock’s continued absence – which stems from a “significant” preseason injury – left Ohio State with just three scholarship corners against the Badgers. That meant first-time starters JK Johnson and Jyaire Brown, a redshirt freshman and a true freshman, had to step up. While both performed well in the blowout victory, the Buckeyes won’t want to rely solely on a pair of inexperienced underclassmen for the remainder of the season.
On Thursday, Ryan Day indicated that Johnson and Brown would have more help, as Burke is expected to return to action after suffering a hand injury that saw him in a cast during pregame warmups last weekend. But Day said Burke’s situation would have to be monitored moving forward.
“It was too close from when it occurred to put him in the game. And now he's had a good week of practice, so great to see him back,” Day said during a press conference. “And yeah, we'll see. It may be something that we have to keep an eye on here for the remainder of the season and protect it. But we'll kind of see how it heals and how it does. But he's gonna be ready to roll this week, and excited to see him back on the field.”
But Burke’s injury didn’t exactly disrupt a stellar start to the season. Ohio State’s top corner as a true freshman last year, Burke gave up multiple big plays and pass interference penalties in the first few games this season. His Pro Football Focus defensive grade thus far (63.9) ranks 242nd among FBS cornerbacks.
Still, in recent weeks, Burke has received public votes of confidence from Day, Jim Knowles and Perry Eliano. Tim Walton also said Tuesday that Burke isn’t internalizing his early struggles too much.
“You have to have amnesia out there, because things happen. You know, you can't worry and dwell on things out there. Because each week is a different challenge,” Walton said. “So he's been doing a good job of putting it behind him, go to the next play, move on to the next game, and keep progressing.
“This is a long season. We're gonna need all these guys coming down the stretch. That's why we try to prepare everybody and have everybody ready to go. We got to be able to control the things that we can control and keep getting better every day. And working on the mental mindset and toughness of being able to move on from the next play – good or bad – we move on to the next play because you have to go play the next one.”
Day issued no update when asked about the health status of fifth-year Buckeye Cameron Brown, who left Ohio State’s Week 3 matchup with Toledo in the first half with an apparent injury and didn’t play against Wisconsin. That indicates Brown won’t be back against Rutgers, although Ohio State’s status report could say otherwise come Saturday morning.
Hancock was expected to be Ohio State’s first cornerback off the bench this season, but the second-year Buckeye hasn’t taken a defensive snap so far after suffering an apparent leg injury in camp. Walton confirmed Tuesday that he anticipated Hancock playing a significant role for the Buckeyes this season but reiterated that he must have his players ready for anything given the unpredictable nature of the sport.
“We had big expectations for him. But again, you can't control those things. So that injury showed up, and then we had to go on to the next step,” Walton said. “And that's why we try to really emphasize everybody in the room has to be ready, because it can change in a heartbeat. And we're still going to kick off on Saturday, so we have to take that approach all the time. So those things, that mature, developmental, being-a-pro-type approach is what we have to take because of the fact that you can't control things that happen on a day-to-day basis. So we try to make sure those guys are always ready to go.”
On a positive note for the Buckeyes, Johnson and Jyaire Brown received plenty of reps in the preseason, while Burke, Cameron Brown and Hancock were all banged up at one point or another. They may lack significant in-game experience, but Day, Walton and Knowles have had plenty of opportunities to evaluate their skills on the practice field against perhaps the best offense in the country.
“Both of them are very talented. And so hopefully we'll have a little bit more depth again this week, but either way, those guys are ready to go and they're gonna see significant time.”– Ryan Day on JK Johnson and Jyaire Brown
“If you look at it, (Johnson) and Jyaire probably have taken the most reps of all the guys from the beginning of camp to now. So over a period of time, those reps help you grow,” Walton said. “You learn, and you keep progressing. He's the same way, man. He's passionate about playing football. He works at it. He studies. And we just try to keep growing each week, each day, and then we start it back over. So we put that behind us, and we start it over fresh. Because each week is a new game plan, each week is a new progression on where are we going, on who are we seeing? So they have the effort, energy and work ethic they do.
“And it's my job to make sure I kind of help them keep progressing with that. But he's all in with it, man. And hopefully, keep stacking good days, that's the whole motto – just stack good days and then at the end, hopefully, it'll play out as we like it.”
Walton said Buckeye nickel safeties Tanner McCalister and Cameron Martinez also possess cornerback skills, should further injuries or poor performance necessitate any personnel realignment in the secondary. True freshman corner Ryan Turner saw his black stripe removed on Sept. 22, which indicates the Buckeyes feel confident in the four-star prospect as another potential option.
Ohio State won’t run into a current top-30 passing offense until it takes on Northwestern, Indiana and Maryland in consecutive weeks in November. But even then, the Buckeyes will be heavily favored in those matchups. Michigan State and Penn State could certainly challenge Ohio State in the air, but the Spartans and Nittany Lions rank No. 67 and No. 36 in passing offense, respectively, so far this season.
That could give Burke, Cameron Brown and possibly even Hanock time to get healthy before the Buckeyes face a serious threat through the air. It will also allow Johnson and Jyaire Brown to continue getting comfortable against Big Ten opposition ahead of the postseason.
Day admitted Ohio State tweaked some things defensively to aid Johnson and Jyaire Brown during their first starts but was also pleased with their performance against Wisconsin. Regardless, Day expects the pair to play large roles for Ohio State moving forward, and the full-scale consequences of that reality remain to be seen.
“Certainly, you always try to consider in their first start helping them out a little bit. But, I mean, (Knowles) was calling his stuff, and they were playing press man-to-man, and they're very good at it,” Day said. “Both of them are very talented. And so hopefully we'll have a little bit more depth again this week, but either way, those guys are ready to go and they're gonna see significant time.”