In 2016, the Ohio State Buckeyes went 12-1; won the Big 10; made the College Football Playoff. It would be the last time they would make the big tournament under Urban Meyer, on the arm and the legs of J.T. Barrett.
But as is always the case with the Buckeyes, it was the defense that powered them through the Big 10 and into the Playoff -- and for the 2016 crew, it was the secondary that was special. They deployed Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley, and Denzel Ward as their cornerbacks; Malik Hooker patrolled centerfield behind them.
After that playoff semifinal lost to Clemson, Lattimore, Hooker, and Conley would enter the 2017 NFL Draft: they would go 11th, 15th, and 24th, respectively. They'd all be outdone a year later by Ward, who would parley a year of starting experience on the outside into the fourth overall selection from the Cleveland Browns, in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Last season for the Buckeyes was then, predictably, a bit of a reload season. The only starting defensive back to enter the 2019 NFL Draft was Kendall Sheffield, who would join the Atlanta Falcons in the fourth round after failing to deliver on a high recruiting status. The rest of the defensive backfield returned: Jeffrey Okudah, Shaun Wade, and Damon Arnette at corner -- Jordan Fuller at safety.
Is this going to be the same caliber as that 2016 squad? I'm not ready to call these four players future first-rounders -- at least, not all of them.
The talent is there in spades for Jeffrey Okudah, who was a No. 1 recruit at cornerback when he graduated in 2017. Okudah's as shifty and explosive of a cornerback prospect as I can remember -- including his predecessors in the scarlet and gray -- and, while he's generally been untested so far this season, seems to have invited an increased degree of physicality into his man coverage ability.
The thrilling development has come from Damon Arnette, the starting corner opposite Okudah who has struggled with consistent play in his career as a Buckeye. Arnette's been as productive and dynamic in coverage as ever in the first quarter of the season for Ohio State, and can be easily tagged as a riser in this cornerback class thus far. Arnette is not the caliber athlete Ohio State typically starts, but technically he's as pro-ready as they come.
And then there's Shaun Wade -- oh goodness, there's Shaun Wade. A rotational player last year who's now in a starting role as the nickel corner for Ohio State, Wade's blend of hitting power, transitional quickness, and zone spacing illustrate that of an immediate NFL hit, even though he's hardly put together a tape profile yet. He's the name to watch to explode onto the scene as the Buckeyes play more national games and Wade flirts with early declaration.
Jordan Fuller as the middle of the field safety is no Hooker, and is likely the weak link in Ohio State's effort to get another four defensive backs in the first round of the NFL Draft. Fuller can absolutely fly, but his ball skills and football IQ aren't much what Hooker's were, and he's remained an inconsistent tackler into 2019. But man, those corners will make you look good at times.
Nebraska and standout WR JD Spielman likely won't present too much of an issue for Ohio State's squad this weekend; the sad reality is that no Big 10 team likely has the WR talent to really give them a challenge by which they can measure their stuff. Maybe Michigan, if Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black, and Nico Collins are all healthy -- and have a real quarterback throwing them the ball.
As it stands, we'll continue to pick at those lucky matchups they get, against players like Spielman, Quintez Cephus of Wisconsin, K.J. Hamler of Penn State. And when we turn to their film as they declare, we'll likely consider again the possibility of a whole unit getting selected in the top rounds.
Ohio State isn't DBU? Are you sure?