Cornerback Play A Lingering Concern for Ohio State at Midpoint of Regular Season: “We've Gotta Learn to Finish”

By Dan Hope on October 12, 2022 at 8:35 am
Cameron Brown vs. Jayden Reed

As dominant as Ohio State has been in the first half of the 2022 season, there aren’t a ton of glaring areas of concern that the Buckeyes need to address during their bye week.

One position group that hasn’t yet performed up to the Buckeyes’ high standard of expectations, however, is their cornerbacks.

Throughout the first half of the season, there were recurring examples of Ohio State’s cornerbacks getting beat in one-on-one situations and giving up big plays through the air. 

Denzel Burke has been under the microscope after giving up a number of big plays this season, including a 58-yard catch to Arkansas State’s Champ Flemings, a 40-yard touchdown catch to Toledo’s Jerjuan Newton and a 14-yard touchdown catch as well as a 26-yard reception to Rutgers’ Sean Ryan.

Cameron Brown has also had his share of struggles, including a 50-yard touchdown catch he gave up to Toledo’s Thomas Zsiros and a rough game this past weekend against Michigan State, when he gave up two catches of 20-plus yards to Spartans receiver Jayden Reed and drew three penalty flags.

Ohio State’s top backup cornerbacks so far this season, JK Johnson and Jyaire Brown, were each beaten for touchdown passes against Michigan State (though Brown appeared to be expecting safety help from Josh Proctor on the latter play).

So as Ohio State head coach Ryan Day and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles reflected Tuesday on how the first half of the season went, both of them identified cornerback play – specifically, the fact that Ohio State’s cornerbacks haven’t consistently made the plays they’ve had chances to make on balls in the air – as an area where the Buckeyes must grow entering the second half of the season.

“When you're identifying in all three phases what needs to improve, the things we've done well, the things we need to improve on, I don't think it's any mystery that one of the things we've got to do is finish some plays out at corner,” Day said. “We're right there. We just haven't quite finished some of them.”

As Day pointed out, it’s not as if Ohio State’s cornerbacks have been getting beaten badly. On most of the big passing plays that have been made against the Buckeyes, Ohio State’s cornerbacks have been in close coverage to the receiver who ultimately made the play.

On some of those plays, like on Reed’s 18-yard touchdown catch against Johnson in East Lansing, it could be said the cornerback covered the receiver well and the receiver simply made a better catch. But Day says that’s not good enough.

“You can say, ‘Well, they made a nice catch,’ but we made some nice catches too,” Day said. “I mean, that's college football now. Guys are making pretty high-end catches. So we've gotta learn to finish, especially in one-on-one situations, because we know that's going to keep coming our way until we can prove that we can. So that'll be a huge emphasis this week.”

“I don't think it's any mystery that one of the things we've got to do is finish some plays out at corner.”– Ryan Day

How can the cornerbacks get better at not allowing big plays? Knowles believes that starts with winning more consistently with their technique at the line of scrimmage, while Knowles said he also has to evaluate what he can do schematically to help them make plays.

“I think when you go back to some of the plays that haven't gone in our favor, you have to look back to the start of the play,” Knowles said. “It's not just that split second at the top of the route. It's football, there's a lot that goes into it and practicing and winning at the beginning of the play, throwing punches, and then the play call and what's the quarterback seeing, what's the offensive coordinator seeing? Am I creating the best situation for that guy to be successful?”

That said, Day believes it ultimately boils down to the cornerbacks needing to do a better job of finding the ball when it’s in the air and getting their hands on passes.

“I keep looking at it and we're there, we just don't seem to be making the plays,” Day said after Saturday’s game at Michigan State. “I think if it's something where guys are just creating separation and can't cover anybody, that's one issue. This issue seems to be that we're there, we're just not quite making the play. So we got to address it. I know we can do that, I know we can. We have the right guys over there, and they're pressing a little bit, but that's OK. They're doing some really good things.”

In order to help those cornerbacks become more comfortable making plays on 50/50 balls, Day and Knowles believe the key is to keep putting them in game-like situations in practice, which they’ll continue to do this week despite there being no actual game on Saturday.

They still have to be careful not to overwork the cornerbacks in practice this week, considering Burke and Brown have both dealt with injuries already this season and Jordan Hancock – who was expected to be one of the Buckeyes’ top three cornerbacks before he was injured in preseason camp – hasn’t played yet this season as he continues to recover from his injury. But they believe it is crucial to take the opportunity of a bye week to work with the cornerbacks on improving their fundamentals.

“I think that these three days are great days to get better, and then take a couple days to catch their breath,” Day said Tuesday. “But the best way to coach is to put players in game situations. So how do we create those exact situations that have happened in the first six games and then allow them the opportunity to find the ball? Simple as that. It's not really complicated. But without doing it so much that we blow their doors off. We've got to make sure that we're keeping them healthy. But that's it. We just have to try to find a way to simulate the game and make practice harder than the game so that when they get there, they're ready to make that play.”

For the most part, Ohio State’s passing defense has performed well this season, currently ranking eighth in the country with only 160.3 passing yards allowed per game. That indicates the cornerbacks have been doing their jobs well on most plays, and there’s reason for optimism their best play this season is yet to come.

Burke, who leads the Buckeyes with four pass breakups this season, did not give up any catches against Michigan State, and Day thought Burke’s play against the Spartans was his best performance of the season to date. The Spartans were arguably the best passing offense Ohio State faced in its first six games, so that could be an indicator he’s finding his stride after missing time in camp with injuries and then missing the Wisconsin game with a hand injury. 

The Michigan State game was Brown’s first game back in the lineup after he missed Ohio State’s two previous games against Wisconsin and Rutgers, so some rust in his return to action probably shouldn’t have been unexpected. Day expects Brown to work hard to bounce back.

“He's very competitive and he wants to be great and be the best corner in the country,” Day said of Brown.

What makes Ohio State’s shaky play at cornerback concerning, though, is that it’s come even though the Buckeyes have yet to play any team that ranks in the top 50 nationally in passing offense. While Ohio State’s defense has allowed no more than 21 points in any of the Buckeyes’ first six games and currently ranks in the top 15 nationally in both total and scoring defense, how effectively their cornerbacks can break up downfield passes could make a bigger difference against better competition.

“We gotta be better at those 50/50 balls,” Knowles said. “That's just the reality of playing defense is you can play great all game and they can just toss a couple up in the air and if you don't win them, you give up a couple of touchdowns. And that's the game we play, but we want to get better in that area.”

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