As Ryan Day evaluated the state of Ohio State’s secondary last week, he offered a sober assessment of one of its most vulnerable position groups.
“I don’t think it’s any mystery that one of the things we have to do is finish some plays out at corner,” he said. “We’re right there. We just haven’t quite finished some of them.”
The Buckeyes’ cornerbacks were left susceptible to big plays during the first half of the season, an issue Day has boiled down to poor plays on the ball.
In Day’s view, a lot of the passes they have surrendered were not owed to poor coverage. Defenders were in position alongside receivers. Only they missed breaking up the passes due to poor timing.
“We’ve got to learn to finish, especially 1-on-1 situations,” Day said, “because we know that’s going to keep coming our way until we can prove that we can.”
Ohio State has made a major leap on defense this fall. In a rebuild in its first season under coordinator Jim Knowles, it’s allowed only 15.7 points per game, an average that is seven points fewer than last season. The unit has been especially effective at stopping opponents on third down and returning possession to the Buckeyes’ prolific offense.
But it’s had its share of lapses in the back end, an area where it’s been most vulnerable.
Improvement among the cornerbacks was a priority for the Buckeyes during an off week that marked the midpoint of their regular-season schedule following a 6-0 start that has kept them within the top-three of the polls.
The Buckeyes have been banged up at cornerback, including among its starters. Denzel Burke missed the Big Ten opener because of an injury to his right hand, requiring a procedure. Cameron Brown was also sidelined for two games with an undisclosed issue.
Rather than viewing the idle week as an opportunity for additional rest for them, Day thought the additional repetitions in practice would be the most beneficial.
“The best way to coach is to put players in game situations,” Day said. “So how do we create those exact situations that have happened in the first six games, and then allow them the opportunity to find the ball? It’s as simple as that. It’s not really complicated. But without doing it so much that we blow their doors off. We’ve got to make sure that we’re keeping them healthy, but that’s it.
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“You just have to try to find a way to simulate the game and make it harder, make practice harder than the game so that when they get there, they’re ready to make that play.”
Knowles offered a similar viewpoint, seeing matchups with Ohio State’s talented receivers as important for the progress of the cornerbacks.
“You want to make practice as game-like as possible,” Knowles said, “and we have the best receiving corps in the country.”
The idle week could help with the status of Jordan Hancock, a redshirt freshman cornerback who has not appeared in a game due to an apparent leg injury suffered in preseason training camp.
Day has expressed optimism that Hancock could be back to start the second half of the season, giving them another option at the position.
The Buckeyes have only six scholarship cornerbacks, the smallest of all their position groups on defense, and Hancock was seen as part of the rotation.
Day said last week that Hancock was even on track to compete for a starting spot before his setback.
“That wouldn’t really change coming off from an injury,” Day said, “but he’s got to get back on the field and prove that. He’s going to start off by getting some games under his belt, and then we can kind of go from there. But we’ll be better if he’s in the lineup and start off by providing some depth.”
Beyond individual improvement, Knowles said he was also looking at whether he could mix up coverages more often to confuse opposing quarterbacks, benefiting the secondary.
“I have to look at myself, too,” Knowles said. “Are we showing our hand too much? Am I giving those guys every chance to be successful through disguise and coverage variation? That’s my responsibility.”
In Burke’s second game back from injury at Michigan State on Oct. 8, Day said he considered it his best game to date. Burke allowed only one reception on the two times he was targeted against the Spartans.
It was a notable step for the sophomore who was the Buckeyes’ top cover corner last season.
Any signs of progress might be difficult to evaluate coming out of the off week.
The Buckeyes host Iowa, which has one of the lowest-scoring offenses in the country, on Saturday.
But a road trip to Penn State on Halloween weekend is only around the corner.