Urban Meyer has built a machine in Columbus. Unlike almost every other program in the country, Ohio State can withstand the losses of key players, either to graduation or the NFL draft, without suffering a major dip in its performance. The Buckeyes may not have honed the recruit-develop-replace process quite as well as Alabama under Nick Saban, but they are close.
Even for a program as consistent in its year-to-year progression as Ohio State, though, the loss of three starters in one position group in consecutive years is a daunting proposition, especially considering that all of those starters had remaining eligibility. That leaves less time for the Buckeyes to groom reserves to fill their spots. After watching cornerback Eli Apple and safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell leave last off-season as part of a record 12 players selected in the first four rounds of the 2016 draft, this off-season the Buckeyes are losing cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley and safety Malik Hooker.
The quality and quantity of players to which Ohio State has waved farewell since being bounced from the College Football Playoff with a humbling 31-0 loss to national champion Clemson would seem to suggest that the back end of the Buckeyes' defense could be vulnerable in 2017, if not the next couple of seasons. But that expectation glosses over the talent Ohio State has compiled to account for the departures. Its 2017 recruiting class is stocked with elite defensive backs, an esteemed collection of athletic, versatile prospects who should play a part in the Buckeyes' efforts to shut down Big Ten passing attacks as early as this fall.
Perhaps the biggest prize of the group is Jeffrey Okudah, a 6’1,’’ 190-pound playmaker out of South Grand Prairie (Tex.) High who could play cornerback or safety. He’s rated as the nation’s top athlete by Scout.com, which notes, “We really like Okudah’s game because he’s just a great all-around football player.” While Okudah should play as a true freshman, a different prospect from the group is probably more prepared to make a big impact in 2017: Kendall Sheffield, who tops Scout.com's junior college rankings. A five-star signee in Alabama’s 2015 recruiting class, Sheffield left Tuscaloosa last summer and spent the 2016 season at Blinn College in Brenham, Tex., before picking Ohio State over Texas A&M earlier this month.
The group is rounded out by five-star Trinity Christian (Fla.) Academy cornerback Shaun Wade, four-star Colerain (Ohio) cornerback Amir Riep and two IMG (Fla.) Academy products in four-star safety Isaiah Pryor and four-star cornerback Marcus Williamson.
It’s difficult to project how much each of these DB prospects will contribute to the Buckeyes’ defense in their first year on campus, but the three starting spots vacated by Hooker, Lattimore and Conley should create opportunities for all of them to compete for playing time. Four of them (Okudah, Wade, Pryor and Williamson) will have the advantage of working in the program this spring after enrolling early.
Sheffield could rise to the top of the depth chart at one corner spot, with sophomore Denzel Ward holding down the other. Meanwhile, Okudah and Pryor may be in the mix at one safety spot, while Damon Webb starts at the other, and Okudah and Wade could battle for reps at cornerback. These questions will be sorted out before Ohio State’s Aug. 31 opener at Indiana. What’s clear is the Buckeyes will have no shortage of qualified options to line up in their defensive backfield.
The secondary is the strong point of Meyer’s most decorated recruiting class since he became Ohio State’s head coach in Nov. 2011. The Buckeyes currently count 19 commitments, with eight five-star prospects and only one three-star (kicker Blake Haubeil of Canisius High in Buffalo, N.Y.), and lead the nation with a 4.37 average star rating, according to Scout.com. The highest average star rating registered by one of Meyer’s previous classes during his tenure in Columbus is 4.04, the same mark of current class rankings leader Alabama (the Crimson Tide count 25 commitments). The Buckeyes may not be done yet, either. They’re still pursuing blue-chip defensive tackles Marvin Wilson and Jay Tufele of Episcopal (Tex.) High and Bingham (Utah) High, respectively, as well as in-state offensive lineman Thayer Munford and running back Morgan Ellison, who renounced his pledge to Ohio University on Monday.
“I don’t think it’s really possible to bring in a much more talented class,” said Tim Moody, who covers Ohio State recruiting for Scout.com. Even if Ohio State lands one or more of those prospects, none of them will join the position group at which the Buckeyes needed the greatest influx of talent in 2017. That’s the secondary, and Ohio State went great lengths to ensure that it won’t slip in the near future. Personnel losses are easier to overcome when the players recruited and developed to take over for them are really good.