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Spring checkup: Ohio State Buckeyes

4/7/2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A couple practices removed, the show of arm strength and the example of the kind of test his cornerbacks face just on the practice field was still running through the mind of Kerry Coombs.

The ball was an absolute laser to the wide side of the field, a vertical route that covered maybe 35 yards through the air but still left almost no time for Ohio State’s defensive backs to react. At the same time it was leaving in indelible mark on Coombs, it was also providing yet another measuring stick for his cornerbacks.

Even more challenges might be on the way when it’s not just Cardale Jones taking the vast majority of snaps in workouts for the Buckeyes, and the relentlessly competitive Coombs wouldn’t have it any other way for his unit as it tries to build on last season’s dramatic improvement while also replacing top cover guy Doran Grant this spring.

“You know, he’s the biggest arm in college football,” Coombs said after practice Tuesday. “Thirty-five yards on a rope, and there aren’t very many guys who can do that. It gets there really fast, so if you’re in coverage, you better know this guy has got that skill set.

“At the same time, the other two guys are getting in great work. For me, that’s the best situation in the world for us.”

The work is only going to get tougher, and in certain situations J.T. Barrett has already joined Jones during camp to throw against Ohio State’s defensive backs and give them chances to test themselves against more than one proven, decorated quarterback. Eventually the Buckeyes will add a third in Braxton Miller, giving them not only unprecedented depth but also a seemingly endless buffet of top-flight practice reps for the cornerbacks.

A deep set of receivers only adds to the degree of difficulty for a group led by Eli Apple, who nabbed three interceptions in his first season as a starter and figures to be complemented by redshirt sophomore Gareon Conley this fall. Damon Webb is pushing for playing time while sharing time at nickelback, and once fully cleared from injury, Marshon Lattimore may become a factor as well -- and both will benefit from stiff tests from a nominal backup quarterback.

“We get to go against great quarterbacks who understand coverage,” Coombs said. “And if we make a mistake they’re taking advantage of it -- every day.

“That doesn’t do anything but make us better.”

With a defense that picked off 25 passes last fall, Coombs and the secondary might just be returning the favor, too.

Take two: Another visit to the surgeon was perhaps inevitable, but Ohio State wasn’t in a hurry to send Dontre Wilson back.

Both the coaching staff and the junior wide receiver held out hope that he would have enough strength in the foot he broke against Michigan State on Nov. 8 to play during the postseason for the Buckeyes, and eventually he did make a brief appearance in the national title win over Oregon. But there was a risk with each snap of re-injury, and since the versatile athlete still wasn’t feeling truly comfortable, Ohio State didn’t push the issue before sending him back for a second procedure which appears to be working much better.

“It didn’t heal great,” wide receivers coach Zach Smith said. “We got him in the Oregon game for I think three snaps -- mainly just because I felt like he deserved to go out on the field in that game because he helped us get there.

“I feel great about it now because he got the surgery. It looks great, it’s healing great and we’re sticking to the plan so he can be healthy by fall.”

Catching the eye: Some praise from his position coach might have been expected, but the buzz around Noah Brown really picked up when another glowing scouting report was echoed by Coombs.

Coming off a debut season that largely was limited to a role on special teams, the sophomore wide receiver has been widely praised for slimming down, gaining speed and apparently making life miserable for defenders tasked with keeping his hands off the football.

“Noah Brown has had a great spring for a young kid,” Coombs said. “Strong kid who lost a lot of weight. He’s quicker, got a good first step, burst and quickness.”

The Buckeyes don’t exactly have a shortage of that at the skill positions, but they are replacing deep-ball artist Devin Smith and jack-of-all-trades veteran Evan Spencer this spring.

In an effort to fill those voids and with Wilson and Michael Thomas dealing with injuries, Brown has lined up at all three starting positions while turning heads with his performance in camp.

“Noah Brown has probably had as good of a spring as I could have wanted,” Zach Smith said. “He’s on a different level than he was in the fall, so I’m really, really pleased with where he’s at.”