Ohio State’s Cornerback Unit Built to Be Best in America in 2024, Elite for Years to Come

By Dan Hope on January 11, 2024 at 8:35 am
Davison Igbinosun, Jordan Hancock and Denzel Burke

Going into the 2023 season, Tim Walton had reason to ponder whether Ohio State’s secondary really deserved to call itself the Best In America.

Ohio State’s defensive backs have proudly used “BIA” as a moniker for the past decade, but the Buckeyes’ secondary play was far from that standard from 2020-22. Ohio State finished 122nd in the FBS in passing yards allowed per game in 2020, 96th in 2021 and 26th in 2022. So, while the Buckeyes’ secondary improved in Walton’s first year on the job in 2022, he knew the BIA standard was something Ohio State had to earn back this past season.

“The Best in America, that’s a big statement. I think we had that going for a while. I think we gotta get that back,” Walton said in a “Tradition Talk” video posted by Ohio State last June. “Get that standard back to where it used to be, man, where we have first-round draft picks, first-team All-Americans, first-team All-Big Tens, guys up for the Thorpe Award, things like that. That’s to me the standard of BIA, the absolute Best in America.”

Half a year later, it no longer feels like a stretch for Ohio State’s defensive backs – particularly its cornerbacks, the position Walton primarily coaches – to call themselves BIA once again.

Statistically, Ohio State’s pass defense was the Best in America in 2023, leading the nation in passing yards allowed per game (145.9) and passing yards allowed per attempt (5.0). Those efforts were led by elite secondary play, particularly from the starting cornerback trio of Denzel Burke, Davison Igbinosun and Jordan Hancock, who consistently covered up opposing receivers and made it difficult for opponents to pass the ball all year long.

Ohio State has every reason to believe it should have the best cornerback unit in America once again in 2024, as it now knows that it will have all three of those starting cornerbacks back. While Burke could have been an early-round pick in the 2024 NFL draft and Hancock played well enough in his first year as a starter to get himself drafted, both of them announced Wednesday that they would stay at Ohio State for their senior seasons. Igbinosun, who joined the Buckeyes via the transfer portal in 2023, is not yet draft-eligible and is entering his junior season.

After three years of substandard play at the position, Ohio State’s cornerbacks were arguably the team’s best unit in 2023, finishing the year with three of the team’s 12 best players. Burke bounced back from an injury-plagued 2022 season to become one of the nation’s top cover men in his third year as a starter. Igbinosun was a clear upgrade opposite Burke, providing physical coverage and excellent run support all season as Ohio State’s No. 2 cornerback. Hancock didn’t become a starter until midyear, when the Buckeyes moved to a three-cornerback lineup instead of starting Sonny Styles as a nickel safety, but he emerged as an excellent slot cornerback and one of Ohio State’s top defensive playmakers down the stretch of the season.

Denzel Burke
Denzel Burke’s emergence as one of college football’s top cornerbacks led the way for Ohio State to have the nation’s top pass defense in 2023.

With Burke now set to be a rare fourth-year starter at Ohio State, Igbinosun having a full year of experience as a Buckeye under his belt, and Hancock now entrenched as a full-time starter, Ohio State’s cornerbacks should be even better in 2024, setting the foundation for the Buckeyes to have an elite defense.

“We’ll be the No. 1 defense coming into next year,” Burke said before the Cotton Bowl when asked about the defense’s potential if he returned to Columbus. “There’s a lot of guys that have played a lot of ball. Honestly, it would look scary.”

Ohio State’s cornerback unit would have been well-positioned for success in 2024 even if Burke and/or Hancock had entered the NFL draft. Jermaine Mathews Jr. looked ready to start as a sophomore when he filled in for Burke in multiple games this past season as a true freshman. Calvin Simpson-Hunt earned playing time in the final five games of this past season and also could have been a contender for a starting job in his second year as a Buckeye. So too was Lorenzo Styles Jr., potentially at the nickel spot, if Hancock or Burke had left.

Now, it’s likely all of them will have to wait until 2025 for the chance to start at Ohio State. But they give the Buckeyes an excellent two-deep for 2024.

“We’ll be the No. 1 defense coming into next year.”– Denzel Burke on Ohio State’s 2024 defense

They also give Ohio State fans reason to be excited about the future of Ohio State’s cornerback unit beyond 2024.

2024 will be Burke and Hancock’s final season at Ohio State, and it could be Igbinosun’s, but the Buckeyes won’t be lacking candidates to replace them when their collegiate careers end. In addition to Mathews, Simpson-Hunt and Styles, Ohio State just added three new freshman cornerbacks in five-star prospect Aaron Scott Jr. and four-stars Bryce West and Miles Lockhart, all of whom bring high upside to the Buckeyes’ secondary.

Ohio State’s Projected 2024 Cornerback Depth Chart
Outside Outside Slot

There’s always the risk in modern-day college football that players that talented will enter the transfer portal if they have to wait their turn for playing time, but there’s reason for optimism that all of those Buckeyes will be around for the long haul. Mathews, Styles, Scott and West are all Ohioans, while Lockhart was all in on being a Buckeye as soon as he got his Ohio State offer. Mathews, who could have been seen as the most likely candidate to transfer based on his readiness to be a starter, seemingly dismissed that notion with one emoji on Wednesday.

Ohio State has already set itself up to add another wave of cornerback talent next year, too. After landing two top-10 cornerbacks in both the 2023 (Mathews and Simpson-Hunt) and 2024 recruiting classes (Scott and West), Ohio State already has commitments from two top-10 cornerbacks in the 2025 class in Devin Sanchez and Blake Woodby. The Buckeyes appear likely to add another in just two weeks when five-star cornerback Dorian Brew, an Ohio native, announces his commitment. The No. 1-ranked cornerback in the 2025 class, Na’eem Offord, also hinted at his interest in the Buckeyes if his tweet on Wednesday was any indication.

Walton has proven he can develop talent with the growth Burke and Hancock have made over the past two years and how quickly Igbinosun and Mathews were ready to play last season, and more and more top cornerback prospects seem eager to join his unit as a result.

There are still some lingering questions for Ohio State’s 2024 defense. The Buckeyes must figure out who will replace Josh Proctor at free safety and who will start alongside Cody Simon at linebacker, and they’re still waiting for a decision from defensive end JT Tuimoloau on whether he’ll stay for his senior season. They’ll also be breaking in at least one new defensive assistant coach after replacing Perry Eliano with new safeties coach Matt Guerrieri – a tacit acknowledgment that Ohio State’s safety play and recruiting haven’t quite reached the BIA standard.

Ohio State’s cornerback unit, though, should not only be the best and deepest unit on the Buckeyes’ roster but one of the best position groups in the entire country. And the program's recruiting is setting them up to have elite cornerback play for years to come.

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