Jim Knowles knows where the biggest improvement must take place on his defense this offseason.
It wasn’t the only factor, but late in the 2022 season, Ohio State’s secondary play wasn’t good enough to deliver a win over Michigan, a Big Ten championship or a victory in the College Football Playoff. Thus, the Buckeyes came up empty-handed on the three primary goals they set out to achieve.
Enter Ja’Had Carter and Davison Igbinosun.
Ohio State brought in two high-level defensive backs from the transfer portal to help bolster its depth at both the safety and cornerback positions. Carter, a fourth-year Syracuse transfer, was a Freshman All-American in 2020 and an All-ACC honorable mention this past season. Igbinosun, a 6-foot-2 corner from Ole Miss, was an honorable mention Freshman All-American by College Football News in 2022.
Early in spring practice, both already seem to be proving that pedigree for a defensive backfield that needs to take strides before the start of the 2023 campaign.
“I think they give us great competition there. That's what we need in the back end, we need competition,” Knowles said. “We need guys fighting to play, we need guys competing against our offense, getting hands on balls. The next step and evolution of this defense really starts in the back end. We all know deep last year how things went and everywhere I've been it's kind of taken me time to get the back end up to having that confidence to compete. And you bring in two guys like that, it just pushes the (rest of the group).
“The other guys see it, and they walk right in and they're mature. And they're not messing around. They're not a young guy coming in who's kind of feeling (things out), these guys aren't messing around. And it pushes everyone.”
Ohio State brought in more transfer portal additions than ever before this offseason, but Knowles said the Buckeyes haven’t lowered their standards when it comes to signing talent from outside the program. Knowles said Carter and Igbinosun both seemed like perfect fits for the Buckeyes through the interview process, and between winter workouts and the start of spring, they’ve only confirmed that notion thus far.
“It is a different age. Times are changing. I mean, I like the fact that we're the Ohio State, we don't participate in that arena very much,” Knowles said. “We're not turning over 22 new guys or something. We can really be picky about the guys. And you're talking about two starters at Power-Five programs that now come in with experience.
At first glance, Carter would seem the more likely of the two to immediately step into a starting role. Not only does he possess more collegiate experience, but the Buckeyes must replace starting free safety Ronnie Hickman and nickel safety Tanner McCalister, who both logged upwards of 500 snaps in 2022. Carter appears to be an ideal fit to take over McCalister’s role, although Ohio State could shuffle things around at safety.
Ohio State only lost one starting corner this offseason, with Cameron Brown heading to the NFL draft, and Jordan Hancock and Jyaire Brown both figure to be in the mix alongside Igbinosun to occupy that spot opposite returning starter Denzel Burke.
"They're not a young guy coming in who's kind of feeling (things out), these guys aren't messing around. And it pushes everyone.”– Jim Knowles on Carter and Igbinosun
But Igbinosun hasn’t wasted any time in grabbing the attention of the Buckeye coaching staff so far.
“Davison looked good out there today. Picking things up, but really just breaking on the ball,” Knowles said. “I liked his length. He has real length and got his hands on a lot of balls. And he was quick to mix it up, too. I joke with him all the time, he's got that Jersey toughness, you know? And he's got experience in the SEC, played a lot of football. I just think he's gonna bring a lot of competition to the position.”
When asked what stands out about Igbinosun, Day echoed some of the same characteristics Knowles mentioned. He’s only played one year of college football, but the four-star recruit did so against the highest caliber of competition in the SEC, and his physical tools set him apart in the Ohio State cornerback room.
A first look at Davison Igbinosun at Ohio State practice: pic.twitter.com/3HakOfdach— Dan Hope (@Dan_Hope) March 7, 2023
“(His) physicality you see for sure. You can see even today, I saw a couple – I'll have to watch the film – where he got his hands on guys,” Day said. “And that length, once you get your hands on him when you have that type of length, it makes it hard for the receiver. Also being a zone corner and having that type of length and size allows you to cover more ground and get your hands on more balls. And for him, he's got experience playing in the SEC as a freshman, so I think that helps with his confidence.”
Iginosun isn’t the only cornerback that’s impressed Day. The Buckeye head coach named Burke and Hanock in particular when discussing defensive backs who have had standout offseasons to this point, and said many of Ohio State’s young corners are “growing up.”
Perhaps for that reason, Day didn’t outright say he expects Igbinosun to be a day one starter in the program. But Day did make it clear that he’ll have a chance to be.
“I think he wants to he wants to compete. So he's gonna, and he'll have of great opportunity,” Day said. “First day in the books today, so it was good. When you go through eight weeks of an offseason program, it allows guys to build discipline and camaraderie and strength and a lot of things. But now it's time to go on a field. And without a great eight weeks of offseason, it's hard to have a good spring. But so many guys did. He came in, stepped in and did a nice job establishing himself early on. That's something that coming in from another program is not always easy to do. So he's done a good job of that. But it's gonna be a good competition.”
Even if Carter and Igbinosun end up surpassing longer-tenured Buckeyes for playing time this fall, Knowles said he doesn’t expect either one to be a problem for Ohio State’s locker room or the culture of the program.
“You want guys who still want to be part of the team, and they're both like that,” Knowles said. “When we interview them, that's exactly what we're interviewing for. Maturity, for fit, can they be a great teammate? And those guys have that.”