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Buckeyes Spring Preview: Ohio State Returns Veteran Secondary

Tim Walton
© Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Ohio State Buckeyes defensive back room has long prided itself on the acronym "B.I.A" or "Best in America." Playing in the shadows of Malcolm Jenkins, Donte Whitner, Marshon Lattimore, Denzel Burke, Jeff Okudah and many others, the Buckeyes are looking to bring back the swagger of the secondary in 2024 after a few down years.

Last season, the Buckeyes secondary finished No. 1 in the nation in passing defense, allowing an average of just 146 yards per game. Tim Walton's unit found its swagger last season and was a force to be reckoned with. "B.I.A" was clearly back and is what Buckeye fans have been wanting to see.

With that kind of production in 2023, some will be surprised to learn that the Buckeye's secondary remains mostly intact. OSU will return every starter from last season except safety Josh Proctor (sixth-year senior) but will replace him with the No. 1 player in the transfer portal in freshman phenom Caleb Downs from Alabama. New safety coach Matt Guerrieri, who has a history of coaching under defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, has landed a dream scenario job with the talent in the safety room. The Buckeyes defensive back unit is also a dream team for coach Ryan Day and Knowles. With landing Downs in the portal, the Buckeyes were able to move Sonny Styles—who played at safety last season—to linebacker to allow his athleticism and skill to be in the box.

With the goal of beating the Michigan Wolverines, winning a Big Ten Championship and competing for a national title, what will Walton and Guerrieri have in their rotation this spring and going into the fall?

Lathan Ransom, Safety

As the Buckeyes season was heading toward the end this past year not many felt that Ransom would return in 2024. Ransom, who has been a productive player for the Buckeyes since his freshman season, had his extra year of eligibility remaining due to the 2020 COVID season rule.

Lathan Ransom
© Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Ransom chose to return to the Buckeyes with the same goals as many, but did not want to leave Columbus without a win against the Wolverines. Ransom could have declared for the NFL draft coming off a year with 34 total tackles, a forced fumble and an interception. His best year was in 2022 when he had 74 total tackles, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception.

He has also been prone to the injury bug, suffering a broken leg and ankle injuries throughout his Buckeye career. Ransom will enter this year healthy and will look to lead the back end of the secondary with experience and pride.

Caleb Downs, Safety

The most surprising transfer in college football this year had to be Downs leaving Alabama to come to Columbus and join the Buckeyes. If you are Walton, you deserve a bonus for landing this player. Downs, who was recruited out of high school by Ohio State but went on to choose Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, quickly entered the portal when Saban chose to retire.

The freshman phenom will enter the Spring coming off a season where he collected 107 tackles, a forced fumble and 2 interceptions. Downs now will replace Styles and will be playing alongside Ransom this season in an aggressive 4-2-5 defense. Down's experience playing in the Southeastern Conference and College Football Playoff is everything the Buckeyes could dream of. He will bring this experience and athleticism to a secondary that was already the best in passing defense. Downs has the potential to win a Jim Thorpe Award while being in Columbus and the good news is, the Buckeyes will get him for two more years at least.

Denzel Burke, Cornerback

Burke came to the Buckeyes in 2021 and was a true freshman starter. Burke was named a freshman All-American and by all accounts was projected as a first-round pick in this upcoming NFL draft if he chose to enter. Burke chose to return to Ohio State with the same goals as his peers and was not able to leave without the win against the Wolverines.

Denzel Burke
© Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Burke is an excellent man cover corner and has accepted the challenge throughout his career of following the best wide receiver on the field. Burke is coming off a season where he collected 24 total tackles, a forced fumble, and an interception. Burke did miss some time last season dealing with an injury to his arm. Expecting a healthy and veteran season out of Burke, he will solidify his draft status as a high-end pick in the first round and will bring great experience to the Buckeyes in a veteran group that will be competing for a national title.

Davis Igbinosun, Cornerback

Igbinosun came to the Buckeyes as a freshman All-American from Ole Miss in 2022. Last year, he brought the experience of playing in the SEC with him to Columbus and was able to start alongside Burke. Igbinosun totaled 59 tackles and was excellent in man coverage to lock down the opposite side of Burke.

Davis Igbinosun
© Clare Grant/The Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Although Igbinosun did not record any interceptions, his presence in the back end and great tackling were a part of the Buckeyes' No. 1 ranking in total defense. Igbinosun will enter his third year as a high-profile player for NFL scouts but with the expanded playoffs and high-power teams joining the Big Ten like Oregon and Washington, Igbinsun will be tested more than he has ever been as the No. 2 corner in the secondary. Look for Igbinosun to take on the challenge and continue to lock down the secondary in a fierce defense.

Jordan Hancock, Cornerback

Hancock was a highly-touted recruit out of Georgia in 2021 and was a huge get for the Buckeyes. Hancock had to earn his time and battle through some injuries but an impressive 2023 campaign landed Hancock on most NFL draft boards as a first-round pick. Hancock chose to run it back with the Buckeyes to secure his first-round status and be a part of a potential historical defense the Buckeyes will display on the field.

Jordan Hancock
© Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Hancock comes off a 2023 season where he totaled 43 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles, two interceptions, and a touchdown. Hancock exploded onto the scene for the Buckeyes playing mostly the nickel corner role for Ohio State but with Burke dealing with injuries throughout the year, when needed Hancock was able to slide out to the starting CB2 spot alongside Igbinosun. Hancock showed high versatility skill playing both spots and will all but likely secure a starting spot in the rotation with Burke and Igbinosun.

Jermaine Matthews Jr., Cornerback

Matthews came to Ohio State with a lot of talent in front of him and many thought his freshman year would be all about development. Throughout camp it was becoming clear Matthews was going to be hard to keep off the field with the talent and athleticism he was providing. When the injuries occurred throughout the season, Matthews found himself on the field during the Penn State game and provided a huge spark for the Buckeyes. In total, Matthews kept finding himself on the field throughout his freshman year and finished the season with 13 total tackles and an interception.

Jermaine Matthews and Jordan Hancock
© Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Now, Matthews will continue to compete for a bigger role with everyone returning at the cornerback position but in all likelihood, Matthews will be a solid rotational piece to keep guys fresh heading into the second half of the season. Look for Matthews to contribute this spring and be a key player amongst the veterans returning.

Malik Hartford, Safety

Hartford saw some time at the safety position last season as a true freshman. While Ransom battled injury, Hartford saw an increase in playing time as a key rotational piece. Hartford had some freshman struggles but overall found himself in the right position but just a step or two behind when it counted. Hartford did not come in thinking he was going to play as a freshman but the early minutes will overall pay off down the road.

Malik Hartford
© Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Hartford finished with 10 total tackles and finished his best game against Michigan State where he had four solo tackles. With Downs and Ransom almost for sure starters on the backend of the secondary, Hartford will be a key rotational piece for the Buckeyes this upcoming season. This Spring is huge for Hartford with development and taking advantage of playing time in the upcoming Spring game on April 13th.

Other Buckeyes in the Mix

The Buckeyes bring in two highly-touted recruits out of the state of Ohio with Aaron Scott from Springfield and Bryce West from Cleveland. Despite also being highly sought after by the Wolverines, Scott, and West chose to stay in their home state and are early enrollees who will compete for time in the secondary against a veteran group of DBs.

Jordan Hancock
© Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Scott and West could see some playing time in the Spring game due to the veterans not risking injury allowing them to get accumulated to the speed of the game. Expect the pair to find the field sparingly this season but will be future lockdown corners for the Buckeyes once this veteran group moves on to the next level.


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