Ohio State Showcases Deep Cornerback Room and Young Pieces At Safety in Spring Game

By Andy Anders on April 13, 2024 at 7:44 pm
Jaylen McClain

Team health served as Ryan Day’s No. 1 prerogative in Ohio State’s spring game on Saturday. He said as much following the game.

Ultimately, the team’s starters didn’t play that much, and not at all in the second half. The drawback of such decisions from a viewing perspective is that the biggest impact players for the upcoming season don’t get many opportunities to showcase their skills. The benefit is that the depth pieces do.

Of all Ohio State’s position groups on the defensive side, none were a better example of that than the secondary.

“Our DBs are BIA, best in America,” defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “We led the country in pass defense (in 2023), I think it was 96th when I got here, and it was No. 1 last year. So they’ve taken that spirit. It’s a competitive spirit, it’s an expectation now. It doesn’t matter who we’re going with, they view it as a standard.”

As players like Calvin Simpson-Hunt, Jermaine Mathews, Aaron Scott Jr. and Jaylen McClain stepped up to make plays in the defensive backfield behind the starters, Ohio State showcased the additional pieces that should give it fuel for a potential 16- or 17-game season. Day went so far as to say it's the deepest cornerback room he’s ever had.

“We have to play depth, and it was good to see Jermaine get in there a little bit at nickel,” Ryan Day said. “Jordan (Hancock) is going to be the starting nickel in there, but he can jump out to corner, so that gives us some flexibility. Then seeing Calvin out there as well, and the other guy who had a really good spring until he had to have a little procedure done out of caution is Lorenzo Styles (Jr.).”

Ohio State’s defensive backs totaled six pass breakups and four interceptions, holding the team’s quarterbacks to a measly 5.7 yards per pass attempt.

The starters got things started, with Davison Igbinosun blanketing some coverage on a few endzone shots, including a walling off of Carnell Tate on a fade route from Devin Brown.

“When you have corners you can count on that are going to compete all the time no matter what the situation is – and we’ve developed that – it changes the way you call the entire game,” Knowles said. “You’re able to leave those guys on an island. You’re able to switch up coverages. They know what they’re doing and they take great pride in it.”

The de facto leader of that cornerback room, Denzel Burke, is entering his fourth year as a starter for Ohio State. While his own plays were few and far between on Saturday, as they’ve been all spring given his experience and value to the team, he’s been eager to see younger players contribute.

“My reps have been limited, so I’ve had a chance to see the younger guys and how they move,” Burke said. “I’m really excited that we have Aaron Scott, and we have Myles (Lockhart). Bryce West didn’t get any reps, but in fall camp, we should be able to see what he’s got. We have Calvin. I’m excited to see what they do and how they continue to develop.”

Simpson-Hunt had to hold up multiple times against Jeremiah Smith, the freshman phenom wide receiver who’s been making waves throughout spring practice. When Julian Sayin lofted Smith a deep ball down the right sideline in the first half, Simpson-Hunt stayed right in phase to break up the play. Later, he took advantage of an overthrown ball from Lincoln Kienholz and came up with an interception.

“He’s one of those guys that just competes every day,” Knowles said. “Doesn’t say much. He’s trying to live up to the standard of the other guys and you see him coming along. You see him, step by step, coming along.”

Scott showed some of the potential that made him a composite five-star prospect, collecting two pass breakups with one that hit his hands for a near-interception. Mathews stayed tight in coverage all afternoon and picked up a PBU of his own.

“Probably the best room I’ve had since I’ve been here,” Burke said. “Camaraderie is good – we’re tight. We do everything together and the sky’s the limit. My job is just to continue to bring the younger guys up and show them what it is and what it means to be on the field and represent BIA.”

Injuries limited the meat of Ohio State’s safety depth, with starter Lathan Ransom, top backup Malik Hartford and experienced hand Ja’Had Carter all out. But those who played made plays.

Redshirt freshman Jayden Bonsu started alongside Caleb Downs and collected five tackles. Freshman Jaylen McClain caught some eyeballs with a beautiful undercut of a corner route for an interception, one that might have been returned for a touchdown in a real game and not one where refs were blowing whistles on first contact.

Even a pair of walk-ons got in on the action, with Brenton “Inky” Jones and Diante Griffin – grandson of Archie Griffin – each collecting picks.

“Our depth was really down at safety this spring,” Knowles said. “It opened up opportunities and Bonsu is a guy who really got a lot of reps, you saw him improve. Then McClain, I think, is a great plus. He’s a guy who has football intelligence, he’s picked up. Of those incoming freshmen who still should be in high school, he’s a guy I think you can point to and he’s gonna be a player.”

Ohio State’s spring game showed that it has both the experience and the young depth to be among the nation’s elite pass defense again in 2024.

“It’s really fun to be in games like this and it’s a little foreshadow of what the season is going to be like,” Burke said. “I’m really excited for what we have to offer and we have all the chips in this year. We want to win it all. That’s the only goal.”

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