COLUMBUS — Four games into the 2021 season, the Ohio State defense is still trying to identify a consistent group of players capable of reversing a troubling trend that has continued since last year.’
The search for impact players has taken longer than anyone inside the program would have hoped, but it appears the Buckeyes have it covered at one position, at least, with the emergence of cornerback Denzel Burke.
Burke, a true freshman from Phoenix, Arizona, was thrust into the starting lineup in week one at Minnesota after both Cam Brown and Sevyn Banks were ruled out. Despite being a first-time starter, Burke fared well in the win, totaling four tackles and three pass breakups in the debut. For his performance, he was graded out as a champion by the coaching staff following the game.
“I was pretty nervous going into that game,” Burke said of his first start. “I didn’t know what to expect. I just wanted to go out there and ball out, trust my technique, trust my coaches and the play calls they’re going to make. I feel like I had a solid game. I obviously could have done better in certain areas, but it felt great.”
Burke has gone on to start each of the Buckeyes’ three games since the opener, nearly recording his first career interception against Tulsa before an absurd review of the play led officials to overturn the call. He has tallied six pass breakups thus far, which leads the team.
Perhaps most notable about Burke’s play is the athleticism with which he plays the position, not all that unlike former Buckeye and current NFL star Denzel Ward. That athleticism should come as no surprise to anyone, however, especially considering Burke was originally being recruited to Ohio State to play on the other side of the ball.
“Actually, (receivers) coach (Brian) Hartline recruited me first at receiver, but I told him I wanted to play corner,” Burke told reporters last week. “So he connected me with (cornerbacks) coach (Kerry) Coombs, and coach Coombs gave me the offer. It’s been a blessing ever since.”
Burke said he chose to play cornerback at the next level because it was always his first love while playing receiver was “a fun thing for me,” although he admitted he sometimes misses catching passes.
While it’s not unheard of for true freshmen to work their way into playing time in year one, starting in the secondary at Ohio State would have been seen as a longshot to anyone outside the program prior to the start of fall camp. However, Burke’s ability to make an instant impact has hardly been a surprise to the coaching staff, including secondary coach and current defensive play-caller Matt Barnes.
“Denzel’s got a rare skill set, and he’s another guy who works really hard at it. Those of us who were able to watch him in the spring are not surprised by the success that he’s had. We saw all of that ability,” Barnes said on Tuesday.
Burke had no shortage of opportunities in the spring and summer to showcase his skills against the best collective group of receiver talent in the country, highlighted by two All-Americans in Olave and Garrett Wilson. Burke said he doesn’t shy away from going to head-to-head with the best of the best, knowing that what he sees in practice is better than anything he’ll see on Saturdays.
“I’m just confident in myself,” Burke said. “Garrett and Chris, in my opinion, are the best receivers in the nation, and they’re going to get me better. If I don’t line up against them, how am I going to get better?”
Such a level of confidence is imperative for any cornerback, and Burke certainly isn’t lacking for belief in himself. But the confidence isn’t baseless or without a foundation. Burke knows everything that is coming his way this year is a product of the work he’s put in through the years.
“I guess you can say it’s crazy, but I put the work in my whole life,” Burke said of becoming a starter so soon. “I grinded and grinded. I came up here and had a goal, and I don’t want to cheat my goals. And I’m a hard worker.”
Burke later added, “It’s just a testament to all the hard work I’ve put in my whole life. I’ve worked my butt off, and I just want to keep going harder because I still have a lot to prove.”
Undoubtedly, more teams will continue to challenge Burke under the assumption that a true freshman is vulnerable. Burke wouldn’t have it any other way, though. Asked by a reporter if he expects to be tested even more often by opposing quarterbacks as the season progresses, Burke said, “No doubt” before flashing a smile and ending with, “Just let them come my way.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.