Ohio State Nickel Jordan Hancock Wants More Turnovers for Himself, Secondary in 2024

By Andy Anders on July 7, 2024 at 10:35 am
Jordan Hancock

For a secondary, there doesn’t seem to be a ceiling beyond the No. 1 pass defense in the country, but somehow Ohio State looks destined to exceed those heights in 2024.

After topping college football by allowing just 145.9 yards per game through the air in 2023, the Buckeyes return each of their three starting cornerbacks and their starting strong safety. Free safety, the lone hole to fill in the back end, was plugged by a superstar transfer in Caleb Downs.

Each of the Buckeyes’ defensive backs will surely have their own areas of focus as they scour and search for ways to become better than what they were last year, which was, collectively, the best in the nation. For starting nickelback Jordan Hancock, the solution is simple – create more turnovers.

“We just gotta make more plays in the back end,” Hancock said in March. “I feel like I can get more interceptions, more forced fumbles. So just ball disruptions and making more turnovers, that's our main goal.”

Hancock essentially began last season as a half-time starter. He and then-safety (now linebacker) Sonny Styles split reps at the nickel position, with Styles utilized against run-heavy teams and multi-tight end fronts while Hancock got the bulk of his work facing spread attacks and formations with three wide receivers or more.

Following a sophomore year largely lost to injury, Hancock flexed his reliability in pass coverage early in his 2023 junior campaign. He put on a marquee performance against Western Kentucky in Week 3, seeing a career-high 50 snaps while matching up with star slot receiver Malachi Corley. Corley was fresh off a 1,295-yard season in 2022 and was drafted by the New York Jets in the third round of the 2024 NFL Draft.

Hancock had some hiccups in the first quarter, allowing a 34-yard completion to Corley and drawing a pass interference penalty, but responded with five tackles, one pass breakup and a giant hit to force a fumble recovered by the Buckeyes.

As the year progressed, so did Hancock’s play. The corner proved more than willing to stick his face in the fan on run plays, racking up 41 tackles with two sacks and two forced fumbles in 616 snaps. For reference, Tanner McCalister, a safety by trade, had 24 tackles in 510 snaps playing the same spot in Jim Knowles’ defense in 2022.

In pass coverage, Hancock broke up five throws and intercepted two, including a 93-yard pick-six against Rutgers on Nov. 4 that helped him earn the Jim Thorpe National Defensive Back of the Week. 

“A lot of run fits, you gotta be in the run fits,” Hancock said of the differences between slot and outside corner. “You're guarding quicker receivers in the slot, so that's kind of the whole (difference), it's two different techniques from outside and inside. So I've been really working on it. If you see last year, I got a lot more comfortable in the slot when I was the main slot when I kind of focused on it, and my game elevated from there. I'll just keep on elevating, and I'm just excited for this season.”

Hancock took over the nickel position full-time after starting strong safety Lathan Ransom went down with a season-ending injury against Wisconsin on Oct. 28, with Styles taking over Ransom’s role.

Entering his final year in Columbus, Hancock voiced no need to return to the outside cornerback position. Denzel Burke and Davison Igbinosun are back as starters there.

“Learning from Sonny put me on with a lot of game and stuff like that,” Hancock said. “I've really had to flip my mindset from just playing corner and then just playing nickel, but now I just want to be the best nickel in the country. So that's my mindset right now.”

Players vary in their willingness to publicize specific statistical goals for themselves, but Hancock didn’t shy away from saying the number of picks he’s aiming for in 2024. 

“I feel like I'm capable of getting five-plus interceptions this year,” Hancock said. “I got my hands on a couple of balls last year. So I feel like just getting more interceptions.”

It’s an area where the secondary can improve in general, as Hancock noted above. For all its success in preventing passing gains, Ohio State intercepted just seven throws a year ago, tied for 112th in the country.

Not only do the Buckeyes have a core of five elite proven talents in their defensive backfield in 2024, but three of them will enter their third years in Knowles’ scheme while another will enter his second. Hancock said that there’s enough experience on OSU’s defense so that everybody knows what every position is doing on a given play.

“It feels good, we're out there just playing fast,” Hancock said. “I'm not out there thinking, because I already know the whole defense. Just out there playing fast and trying to make other people better.”

"I've really had to flip my mindset from just playing corner and then just playing nickel, but now I just want to be the best nickel in the country."– Jordan Hancock

The only projected defensive starter who hasn’t spent at least one year under Knowles’ tutelage is Downs, who Hancock has a personal connection with. Both hail from Georgia, and Caleb’s brother Josh is one of Hancock’s “best friends.”

“I've known Caleb since he was 6,” Hancock said. “We grew up in the same park, we played football in the same park. So real close family friends, we're family friends for sure.”

As the No. 1 transfer in the country per 247Sports and a freshman All-American with 107 tackles playing for Alabama, a lot of people are familiar with who Downs is. But those who aren’t will come to know him this year, Hancock stated.

“He's a huge difference maker,” Hancock said. “He's always had those lights on him since he was a little kid, so this is nothing new to him right now. In fall camp he's gonna show everyone that he's really like that and make a name for himself again, if people didn't remember.”

While Hancock chases his statistical objectives, he and his teammates are motivated by the unachieved goals of seasons past. It’s been five years since Ohio State beat Michigan with three straight losses, four since it won a Big Ten title and 10 since it won a national championship.

That means that Hancock and his 2021 classmates haven’t achieved any of those three goals. It’s part of the reason why so many of them came back, with Burke, JT Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer and Tyleik Williams joining him in returning on the defensive side from that class. Ransom and Cody Simon, freshmen at the time of the Buckeyes’ 2020 Big Ten Championship, join them in electing to stay for another year rather than go pro.

“Just the brotherhood,” Hancock said of why he returned. “Everyone was coming back, so I'm like, ‘Man, what do I look like just going and leaving?’ But I just wanna leave out of here with a national championship. And we just left so much behind. I feel like our class came in, one of the best classes to ever come through Ohio State, we need to leave out of here with something. So that's why I came back.”

A few more turnovers from Hancock could certainly help break some of those droughts.

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