After dealing with injuries earlier this year, Ohio State sophomore cornerbacks Denzel Burke and Jordan Hancock are both feeling healthy and confident entering the final month of the regular season.
Burke has already dealt with multiple injury setbacks this year. Going into the season, Burke suffered a shoulder injury in preseason camp. While that injury didn’t force him to miss any games, it did limit his practice reps for several weeks, which caught up to him on Saturdays as he did not play up to his usual standard early in the season.
The second-year cornerback was forced to miss Ohio State’s fourth game of the season against Wisconsin after he suffered a painful hand injury that required surgery – though he still made an effort to play against the Badgers just three days later.
“It happened, just hitting the ball out. Next thing you know, my whole joint came off the bone,” Burke said. “I got surgery on, I think it was that Wednesday. I had extreme pain gameday. I just couldn't do it. I tried to. I put the club on and went out there. It was just hurting too bad.”
In the first four games he was able to play this year, Burke gave up 10 catches for 231 yards – including a catch of at least 26 yards in all of those games – and two touchdowns on 17 targets, according to Pro Football Focus. In his first interview session since the season began, Burke acknowledged he was not satisfied with his performance in those games.
“Obviously, the start of the season wasn't what I expected or wanted either,” Burke said Wednesday. “But I'm not really worried about the past. I'm really just worried about going forward, stacking games and just winning games, game by game, and just doing what I can to the best of my ability for this team.”
Burke has performed much better in Ohio State’s last three games, giving up only four total catches for 24 total yards and no touchdowns in the Buckeyes’ wins over Michigan State, Iowa and Penn State. He believes his improved play is a product of being fully healthy and being able to practice more, even though he was always confident in his ability.
“The way you practice is the way you're gonna play on Saturdays too, and I didn't have the most reps. I think I had one of the least amount of reps out of the whole corner room throughout fall camp and the offseason,” Burke said. “So yeah, man, just being able to be out here fully healthy, I'm happy.”
“Obviously, the start of the season wasn't what I expected, what I wanted either. But I'm not really worried about the past.”– Denzel Burke on his early-season struggles
Ohio State’s coaches always expressed confidence that Burke would bounce back from his early-season struggles. Ryan Day feels Burke has done so now that he’s been able to practice more and get more comfortable in the Buckeyes’ new defensive scheme.
“He's practicing consistently. He's playing every play at a high level,” Day said. “When you have an injury like that, it takes you out for a little while. You have to get yourself back into playing shape. And I think he's doing that. And I think his feet are moving well. I think he's covering … I think when you add all those things up, you're starting to see him get better and better.”
Ohio State safety Lathan Ransom believes Burke is playing as well as he’s ever played now.
“I knew Denzel was going to shake off them games that he didn't play as good as he wanted to,” Ransom said. “I mean, Denzel’s one of the hardest workers I know in the DB room or on the whole team. And I knew it was a matter of time before Denzel started balling like he was last year.”
As for Hancock, he missed the entire first half of the season after suffering a hamstring injury in preseason camp. While Day previously described Hancock’s injury as “significant,” Hancock – who also held his first interview session of the year Wednesday – described the injury as “a little pull” and said he wanted to come back sooner but that Ohio State wanted to be cautious not to rush him back.
“I've always felt good, but it's more like, we want to keep it safe,” Hancock said. “It was a long process. Just want to thank the strength staff, the training staff, for really believing in me and getting me back on the field.”
Hancock has come off the bench in his first two games back, playing 15 snaps against Iowa and 31 snaps against Penn State. The Buckeyes have been bringing back slowly by design. Still, both Day and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles have said they expected Hancock to play a substantial role this season before his injury, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see Hancock in the starting lineup and see another increase in snaps this week.
“I haven't been a baseball coach, but it is like a pitcher. That's why they call it a pitch count, I guess because a guy can taper off as the game goes on if he hasn't built up that stamina,” Knowles said. “So we're gradually increasing him and looking for more reps from him this week.”
Hancock gave up two catches for 43 yards against Penn State, including a 35-yard catch-and-run by Penn State’s KeAndre Lambert-Smith after Hancock misread a play and left Lambert-Smith wide open, but he’s been otherwise sound in coverage in limited action. Hancock said he knows he still has a lot to work on, specifically his discipline and eyes, and he had to work through being limited by injury like Burke. But he feels ready to play as much as he is called upon going forward.
“I've always felt confident. I feel like being out there in the environment with Penn State, you can’t not play with confidence,” Hancock said. “So I feel really confident going into this next stretch of games. I feel good.”
Burke is among the Buckeyes who believe Hancock can make a significant impact in the future now that he’s healthy.
“Big time deal,” Burke said when asked about the value of Hancock’s return. “We trust him. We love him. Yeah, man. It's awesome to have him back.”
As they battled adversity together during the first half of the season, Burke and Hancock told each other to keep their heads up. They both expected each other to return to form, and they’re glad to see each other hitting their stride now.
“I'm extremely proud of Denzel,” Hancock said. “You know, he could easily be down on himself, but he's always been a team player. It's a hard process, but he never felt down on himself. He didn't show it, at least, and I'm extremely thankful for being his teammate and for him doing that.
“We know how good Denzel is. Denzel’s a really good ball player. He loves football. So it's really good seeing him out there now, just getting that confidence back and sky's the limit.”
Eight games into the year, Ohio State’s cornerback unit still hasn’t been at full strength yet for any game this season, as Cameron Brown has missed four of the Buckeyes’ last five games with an undisclosed injury of his own. Now that Burke and Hancock are healthy, though, Day says he feels the best about that position group that he has all year, even after a game in which the Buckeyes allowed 371 passing yards – by far the most they’ve allowed all season, but against the best passing offense Ohio State has faced all year.
“I thought Penn State played well at receiver, and they made some good plays. But I thought we were there (in position to make plays) again, and I thought that the corner play was better,” Day said. “Certainly, some things that we want to get better at. Looking forward to getting Cam back, but at the same time, good to see Jordan Hancock get back in there. Good to see JK getting more reps under his belt. Good to see Denzel getting into a little bit of a rhythm.
“There's certain things that we gotta get better at, but the guys are starting to play more and more. And that was really the first full game we played on defense. Even the Notre Dame game, I think was under 50 (defensive) plays. So great to see all those guys get a bunch of reps, and the more they play, the better they're gonna be.”
Burke also believes Ohio State’s defense is trending in the right direction despite allowing a season-high 31 points to the Nittany Lions.
“I feel like the defense as a whole played awesome. I feel like this is our first game we’ve actually been challenged. Penn State's a good team,” Burke said. “Best environment I’ve ever played in. And I feel like this is probably the best game the defense has played with this type of team.”
Knowing that the Buckeyes still haven’t had a fully healthy cornerback unit all year has Ransom believing the best is still to come for Ohio State’s secondary.
“I mean, I think on both sides of the ball, just we've been nicked up a little bit, and dudes are coming back and once our team is full-go, everyone's full-go, man, we're gonna be really scary to mess with,” Ransom said.