Hafley wants Ohio State defensive backs to play fearless

New secondary coach happy with group’s progress this summer

Jeff Hafley arrived at Ohio State in January after seven seasons in the NFL, joining Ryan Day's staff as co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. He experienced the throng of reporters who cover every Ohio State football media event in recent months, but saw it grow in size Tuesday in his latest interview at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

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“This is more than last time,” said Hafley as he sat down at one of the roundtables on the turf field. “You’ve got a lot of cameras today, too. We must be getting close to the season.”

Indeed, the Ohio State Buckeyes were 11 days away from the season opener against Florida Atlantic when Hafley spoke. Many of the offseason questions will soon be answered. However, even at this late date, not even the coaches know all the answers.

Who will start in Hafley’s secondary? Who will come off the bench? He may have an idea, but the final decision hasn’t been made.

On Tuesday, Hafley told his group, “We’ve got a week and a half until we play. I want everyone to prove to me they’ve earned the right to go into the rotation, and if they do, they’ll play.”

Two-year starter Damon Arnette, a fifth-year senior, returns at cornerback. Junior cornerback Jeffrey Okudah has played in 27 games the last two seasons. Redshirt sophomore Shaun Wade and sophomore Sevyn Banks are also in the mix at cornerback.

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At safety, the returning starters are senior Jordan Fuller and junior Brendon White. Others in the mix are redshirt junior Jahsen Wint, junior Isaiah Pryor and sophomore Josh Proctor.

In the end, it might not matter who starts. Each of those players will get their chance. Day praised the secondary for “playing with energy” and creating turnovers in his weekly press conference Monday. Hafley sees that, too.

“They’re working hard,” he said. “I think they’ve had a good camp. They’re learning the scheme. I think they’re gaining confidence, which to me is the most important thing. I want those guys to play confident. I want them to have fun. Because on game day, we’ve got to go play. I think they’re getting close.”

The secondary faced criticism last year. The Buckeyes ranked 11th in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed (245.2). The 2019 group should gain from that experience. It lost only one significant contributor: cornerback Kendall Sheffield, who was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the fourth round.

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“They know what they’re doing,” Hafley said. “They’re playing with good fundamentals and techniques. They’re finishing violently. They’re not afraid to go make a play. That’s what practice is for. It’s fun to see them doing that. If they make a mistake, we’ll fix it. I want them to be fearless. I want that to be their mindset.”

Ohio State tied for ninth in the Big Ten last season with 11 interceptions. It has shown signs of increasing that number this summer. Okudah said Proctor has eight interceptions himself in the preseason.

“I think everyone’s just getting to the football,” Okudah said. “Everyone’s making it a point to get to the football every single play. When you hustle to the football, you get a lot of those loose balls, a lot of those tipped balls. Everyone’s always punching at the football. I know the offense has made it one of their primary goals to hold onto the football, but we’re always punching at it, trying to get it out, and it’s generating turnovers.

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