Ohio State signed three cornerbacks in the 2021 class, landing Jakailin Johnson out of Missouri, Jordan Hancock out of Georgia, and Denzel Burke out of Arizona. Burke, however, was the only of the three to enroll early for the Buckeyes and participate in winter workouts and spring football. He was also the only one who had never been to the Ohio State campus until he showed up this winter on move-in day.
His inexperience with the city of Columbus somewhat mirrored his inexperience at cornerback. He had taken plenty of virtual tours of campus and the surrounding area, just like he had dabbled at cornerback while playing mostly receiver in high school. It didn’t help matters when Burke suffered an injury in the first game of his senior year, costing him the rest of the season and taking even more cornerback opportunities away from him.
There was even some thought that the Buckeyes weren’t going to accept his commitment until they got to see him work out in person, but head coach Ryan Day had gotten a look at him early on before recruiting got shut down by the quarantine, plus they ultimately decided they had seen enough of his (mostly receiver) tape to believe he could become an Ohio State cornerback down the road.
After all, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs took an explosive receiver and turned him into a dominating cornerback. Way back when, Bradley Roby was committed to Vanderbilt as a receiver. Jim Tressel eventually landed him as a cornerback and then Coombs got him in 2012 and 2013. Then there were Gareon Conley, Marshon Lattimore, Denzel Ward, and current Buckeye Cameron Brown — all of whom where tremendous receivers for their respective high schools. And so far Brown is the only one not to be drafted in the first round, which is something everyone will be trying to remedy this coming season.
Coombs won’t necessarily be the guy with Denzel Burke day in and day out because that duty will fall to secondary coach Matt Barnes, but Coombs will surely have some thoughts to add.
“Now, here’s what I’ll tell you: we’ve been down this road, right, with a lot of really good players,” Coombs said a year ago when talking about freshman defensive back Cameron Martinez, who had only played quarterback in high school. “Gareon Conley played wide receiver in high school. Bradley Roby played wide receiver, was committed to Vanderbilt as a wide receiver. You get them here and they start to see and they start to feel comfortable doing one or the other and their career takes off.”
Burke showed up ready to work despite being slowed by a shoulder injury. He was eventually cleared, but was even making plays in 7-on-7 before he was cleared for full contact.
“It’s actually uncanny how natural he does a lot of things at corner for not having played there very much,” Barnes said this spring.
The athleticism was a prerequisite and it was seen on the field immediately, but he wasn’t nearly as raw at cornerback as the Buckeye coaches were expecting.
“You know, I don’t know if it’s 7-on-7 development or he just had a trainer or somebody that he worked with, but he does a lot of things naturally very well,” Barnes said. “It’s been fun to watch.”
The Buckeyes were without corners Cameron Brown and Sevyn Banks this spring, which allowed Burke to get a crash course in learning what is expected of an Ohio State cornerback. Going against the Buckeyes receivers every day had this freshman taking graduate level classes very early on.
And while Denzel Burke was learning his lessons, Barnes learned some things as well — and it was all good news for the Buckeyes.
“He has elite feet,” Barnes said of Burke. “Footwork and patience that you don’t see from for many people regardless of their age, but particularly for a young guy, to sit at the line of scrimmage and have the patience that he has to play press technique and some other techniques. He looks seasoned.
“He’s been a very — not that we’re surprised, but I am to a degree. Just kind of blown away by how far along he looks at times. Now he’s still got a long way to go, don’t get me wrong, but he looks pretty natural in there. So really excited about him.”