Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs speaks with media on Ohio State's indoor practice field.

Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs speaks with the media in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center Feb. 5. Credit: Griffin Strom | former Sports Editor

In an uncertain time that has demanded flexibility and mental fortitude, Kerry Coombs wants to put a secondary on the field that will embody those same characteristics. 

Ohio State will return only one starter in the secondary for the 2020 season with redshirt junior cornerback Shaun Wade’s return. Although an unproven group, Ohio State defensive coordinator Coombs said he is excited to work with this rendition of Ohio State’s secondary. 

“It’s very early in camp for me to say, ‘confident,’ but at the same time, I really like these kids,” Coombs said in a Zoom conference Tuesday. “I love Shaun Wade, I’m thrilled he came back. I think we’ve got a lot of talent back there in the back end. It’s just young talent. It’s inexperienced talent.”

Wade’s return would solidify Ohio State’s No. 1 cornerback position, but the other three positions will be filled by players stepping into increased roles. 

In terms of what Coombs searches for in his starting defensive backs, the Ohio native said he looks for physical characteristics such as length and speed. Above the physical makeup, however, Coombs said he values intangibles above anything else. 

“More than anything I look for a gritty competitor –– a kid that refuses to lose that plays with a fearless mentality of ‘my man catches no balls,’” Coombs said.

One of the players expected to have a shot at a starting position is junior Sevyn Banks. Coombs said that he is proud of the progress Banks has made but consistency is still a point of emphasis. 

Competing for the second cornerback position, Banks said the competition is nothing new. 

“We take it day by day,” Banks said. “We’re at Ohio State, we’ve got to compete every day.”

Senior cornerback Marcus Williamson also finds himself in the mix for a starting nod when Ohio State opens the season against Nebraska on Oct. 24. 

Williamson said that he has received most of his repetitions at the inside cornerback position but also said players have been moving around in the secondary. 

“We’ve all been pretty interchangeable as a unit,” Williamson said. “We’ve had a lot of guys bouncing around, and I think one thing [Coombs] really preaches is versatility, so that’s what we kinda stand for as a unit.”

Williamson said Coombs has brought a “new life” to the secondary after losing most of its starters from 2019. 

In terms of the look of the defense, Coombs said it is an advantage to have the ability to play with multiple personnel groupings. With nine games in nine weeks, Ohio State may be forced to turn to its depth in the form of different personnel groups and packages. 

“I think more than anything, for us right now, it’s going to be ability based,” Coombs said. “It’s going to be based on the talent of the roster and frankly the health of the roster. You’re going to have to be flexible this year. You’re going to have to be able to adapt to a lot of situations based on who’s healthy and able and ready to go.”

Developing players and fine-tuning the depth chart has a different look with the extended offseason. 

One of the key differences has been the lack of tackling in practices, but Williamson said he is not concerned with where the group stands. 

“Not having pads on in practice definitely has its difficulties, but I think coach (Ryan) Day, our defensive staff and our staff as a whole, they preach practicing like a pro,” Williamson said. “Without having those pads on, you’re able to practice those fundamentals, have great football position, playing low, having the right approach on a tackle, and I think it will pay off once we get the pads on.”

Although it has been an unusual offseason turned preseason with unproven cornerbacks, the expectations of the group labeled “Best in America” remain the same. 

Williamson said the title coined by Coombs stresses the focus on competing against the standards set by high-caliber players that came before the current group. 

“The whole mantra of ‘BIA’ came from being at the best place in America, and if we’re the best place in America, we certainly should be the best in America at what we do,” Coombs said.