Gareon Conley is well aware of those who came before him.
Bradley Roby, Doran Grant, Eli Apple in recent years; Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Gamble, Antoine Winfield, Shawn Springs and more before that. Ohio State has a relatively longstanding history of NFL-caliber cornerbacks. This is not a secret.
“My coach talks about it all the time,” Conley said Sunday at the team's media day. “He’s like, ‘You’ve got to uphold the tradition.’”
No pressure, of course.
After he was the only newcomer to Ohio State’s secondary in 2015, Conley is the lone returning starter this season in the Buckeyes’ back four. The redshirt junior knows the expectations and demands from his position coach, Kerry Coombs, but Conley doesn’t seem to shy away from it.
“Every year, [Coombs] wants first-round draft picks and championships,” Conley said. “That’s what I’m going to try to give him.”
That confidence wasn’t always there for Conley, however.
His first real game action in an Ohio State uniform came during the 2014 season in a game at Michigan State when Apple was sidelined with an injury. The Spartans went directly at the then-redshirt sophomore on his very first drive. It ended with a Michigan State touchdown. Apple entered the game shortly after that and played injured.
When it was time for him to be a full-time starter the following season, Conley often referenced that game against the Spartans. He learned from it and became a much more confident player throughout the 2015 season. Apple and Conley then became one of the best cornerback combinations in the Big Ten last season.
Conley recorded 49 tackles, two interceptions and five pass breakups in his first year as a starter. He was named honorable mention All-Big Ten by the media.
“As you get out there, repetition builds accuracy,” Conley said of last season. “Every game, I was just getting more confident with myself knowing I was out there to play. Knowing that your teammates and the coaching staff is confident to put you out there, that boosts your game up.”
"Last year, I was a new starter so I was trying to learn the experience, learn the room," he continued. "Now I’m the only starter (in the secondary) so I have to lead these guys and bring them up with me and hold them to expectations and the standard.”
The next step is to become that first-team All-Big Ten corner in a league with plenty of talent. Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis and Iowa’s Desmond King are two of the top at the position nationally; Conley wants to be mentioned in that same breath and he’s been working to improve his game in order to get there.
“Just technique, fundamentals and just getting back to what I do,” Conley said. “Just working on using my hands more because I didn’t use my hands a lot last year. Just becoming a stronger player and faster.”
There’s a lot of pressure put on Ohio State’s corners with the style of defense the Buckeyes play. There is a lot of one-on-one press coverage and it’s up to Conley and Co. to shut down opposing wide receivers almost by themselves.
And now in his fourth year in the program, Conley is expected to be Ohio State’s No. 1 guy just like those that came before him.
“He’s playing at a high, high level right now,” head coach Urban Meyer said. “He’s an NFL corner someday.”
After all, that is the expectation for Ohio State cornerbacks.