Tuesday Take Loaded cornerback class expected to step in immediately

OSU redshirt junior cornerback Gareon Conley (8) and OSU redshirt sophomore cornerback Marshon Lattimore (2) celebrate Conley’s first half interception during the Buckeyes game against the Badgers on Oct. 15. The Buckeyes won 30-23 in overtime. Credit: Alexa Mavrogianis | Photo EditorOhio State’s inexperienced secondary exceeded all expectations during the 2016 football season. All one has to do is look at the success in pass defense — in terms of interceptions, passes defended and passing yards allowed — to understand why OSU has both starting cornerbacks and its best overall player at safety projected as possible first-round picks.Dominance from cornerback Gareon Conley was seen as a possibility before the season. But the emergence of Marshon Lattimore opposite Conley was not as anticipated. Now, both are gone and the Buckeyes will have to reload.They certainly have the class to do that.OSU coach Urban Meyer snagged the top two cornerbacks in the 2017 recruiting class, according to recruiting site 247Sports, in freshmen Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade who have already enrolled.To add to that, Alabama transfer and the No. 1 junior college cornerback Kendall Sheffield will also join the Buckeyes in 2017. Okudah, Wade and Sheffield are all in contention to start at cornerback next year, and all will participate in spring practice which begins March 7. Sheffield is expected to join the program that month.“When me and Jeff (Okudah) talked, we said we are going to push each other no matter who starts or who plays over each other, we are going to push each other,” Wade said on National Signing Day. “That’s really the only thing we were talking about.”The OSU secondary intercepted 21 passes and returned a school-record seven for touchdowns. Conley and Lattimore each had four interceptions while safety Malik Hooker reeled in seven, including three touchdowns. The first-year starting safety was the most athletic of the bunch and will be difficult to replace.It’s probably too much to ask of the four freshmen cornerbacks in the 2017 class — which includes four-star, early-enrollee Marcus Williamson — or the current cornerbacks, junior Denzel Ward and redshirt sophomore Damon Arnette, to duplicate the numbers that Lattimore and Conley produced. But that’s not saying that expectation isn’t there.“We’ve only been here for a month, so we haven’t gotten a chance to feel the expectations but we know what the expectations are,” Okudah said. “With the class like the one we brought in, it’s the highest expectation and that’s to win a national championship.”For beginners, Okudah, Wade and Sheffield — all of which were former five-star recruits — possess the size of Conley, Lattimore and former OSU and New York Giants cornerback Eli Apple. Standing at 6-foot or taller, each of the three already fit into that mold that has become a breeding ground for NFL cornerbacks. That being said, Conley, Lattimore and Apple all redshirted their first seasons in Columbus. It’s not unprecedented for freshman to start at OSU, but to have an opportunity to play immediately for not one, but three players at one position — a chance that often isn’t presented to even the most heralded OSU recruits — is a rarity. However, that’s an even greater tribute to the talent, confidence and maturity the newcomers have before being with the program for a full month.Meyer said that immediate assistance will come in the defensive backfield.“I see those guys (helping),” he said. “We targeted those guys from day one, and we got the three primary guys.” read more

Football Inexperienced linebackers expect improvements in second half of season

Ohio State sophomore linebacker Pete Werner (20) takes to the field in the first half of the game against Rutgers on Sept. 8. Ohio State won 52-3. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Photo EditorTwenty-one.Ohio State, ranked No. 2 in the NCAA with a 7-0 record and two wins over previously ranked opponents, has given up 21 plays of 30 or more yards in its first seven games of the season.Two plays broke the record for the longest play allowed in Ohio State history, allowing a 93-yard pass once against TCU and the other two weeks later against Penn State.Often times, it is the linebackers who are blamed for these big plays, and redshirt junior linebacker Justin Hilliard knows that.“Everyone talks about the linebackers right now,” Hilliard said. “In the last three weeks, this is the most we’ve watched film, this is the most we’ve worked in practice.”The Ohio State linebacker room is composed of a handful of players, many of which have gotten a sizable amount of time on the field this season.Seven linebackers for the Buckeyes have eight total tackles or more, and three of the top four tacklers on the team, sophomore Pete Werner, junior Malik Harrison and redshirt sophomore Tuf Borland, are at the linebacker position.With only one senior at the position, redshirt senior Dante Booker, linebackers coach Bill Davis said in-game reps are the most important thing in improving the group.“When young guys get on the field for the first time and when you’re playing at Ohio State, in front of crowd we play, in front of the television times that we play and the audiences, these young men are finding themselves and really what happens is they’re always questioning ‘Do I belong? Do I belong?,” Davis said. “At some point, they make enough plays and they have enough reps where they say, ‘You know what, I do belong,’ and then you see a confidence about them.” Davis said the defense now is “right at that edge” of getting to that confidence, and some of the guys are already “popping with the confidence.”Even with the strong tackling numbers of Werner, Harrison and Borland, the recent defensive output for the Buckeyes has raised questions about that confidence.Ohio State watched redshirt senior quarterback Trace McSorley break the program record with 175 rushing yards and 461 yards of total offense. Two weeks later, Minnesota relentlessly used slants to break open the middle of the defense, while giving up 157 yards to redshirt freshman running back Mohamed Ibrahim.Despite those numbers, Davis said he sees the linebacker room turning a corner.“It’s as frustrating for the players, the coaches and the fans equal, it really is, we are trying hard to stop those little breakdowns,” Davis said. “We feel, as a group, very confident that that’s about to be eliminated, that we’re at a place, and the guys are mature and the reps are high enough now that we’re really excited about the second half of the season defensively.”There have been injuries to various Ohio State linebackers throughout the season, with Borland and Hilliard coming off previous injuries heading into the year, and Harrison missing the previous matchup against the Golden Gophers amid concussion protocol. But Hilliard said injuries don’t affect the group muchHilliard said he thinks a lot of the problems on the defense have been from missed assignments.“Even when guys are hurt, they’re still always around us,” Hilliard said. “We’re always working together and everyone has that mindset to prepare as a starter, and you’ve got to be ready when your time comes.”Hilliard and Davis both said they see the linebackers ready to turn into a group that can help Ohio State prepare for a championship run.Both also have personal goals, with Davis’ being to always improve as a coach.“I’m always trying to improve and get better, I think I’m a better coach this year than I was last year, I’ll say that every year of my career no matter where I’m at,” Davis said.For Hilliard, it’s being more than the player who suffered major injuries in his first two seasons at Ohio State.“I don’t want to be known as the guy who got injured but I mean that is my story,” Hilliard said. “I wouldn’t say it bothers me but I don’t want to be known as that.” read more