COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Quick, without looking ... who led Ohio State in sacks last season?
All but the most serious Buckeyes fans probably guessed Joey Bosa. Or maybe linebackers Darron Lee or Joshua Perry. Perhaps even Adolphus Washington. Nope. It was defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis, who had eight.
OK, here’s another one. Did you know that Ohio State has a returning starting cornerback that coaches say will be as good or better than the past three draft picks to come out of Columbus from that position?
He’s junior Gareon Conley, and somehow he and Lewis have accomplished the impossible. They both played great last year for one of the most hyped teams in recent Big Ten history, yet they remain underrated nationally -- and even around the conference.
But as two of only three full-time defensive starters back from the 2015 Buckeyes, they should help form the backbone of this year’s team. Head coach Urban Meyer praises both of them for providing “exceptional leadership” to a young roster.
Lewis earned only honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last season despite his team-best sack total. Of course, he was overshadowed by having a superstar like Bosa line up at the other defensive end spot. And, yes, he probably benefited from all the attention Bosa got, as offenses almost always double- and sometimes even triple-teamed the league’s defensive lineman of the year.
Yet, it’s also noteworthy that Lewis, who added 14 tackles for loss a year ago, put up his numbers last season while dealing with a torn labrum in his left shoulder that required surgery in January.
“It was bad off, but hey, that’s what surgery is for,” Lewis said. “It was just something down inside you where you just play. I didn’t think about it. I just played.”
Still, Lewis admits he couldn’t use his hands much to shed blockers late last season, harnessed as he was by a shoulder brace and, you know, the pain. He’s looking forward to playing freer this fall with full health. And the 266-pounder is much more than just an edge rusher.
“He plays the run really well,” defensive line coach Larry Johnson said. “He can play in front of a 320-pound tackle easily. He’s just so strong, so fluid and very unassuming -- he does his job and everything we ask him to do.”
The junior also is one of the defense's top leaders. His young teammates listen to him, not that they have much choice, really. Lewis is always talking, often at a high volume.
“I’m just a naturally loud person,” Lewis said. “I’m very vocal. I try and inspire. But I also try to correct guys and lead my unit in the right way.”
Conley doesn’t make as much noise as Lewis. At least not until he goes out on the field. As a first-year starter in 2015, he had two interceptions and five pass breakups. Defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs said that Conley played as well as fellow corner Eli Apple for the first half of last year before hitting a wall that was perhaps caused by fatigue. Apple was drafted No. 10 overall in the NFL draft this spring.
Ohio State’s previous two No. 1 corners, Bradley Roby (2013) and Doran Grant (2014), also got drafted, with Roby also going in the first round. Coombs says Conley is "absolutely" on the same path as his predecessors.
“The pattern around here has been pretty clear,” Coombs said. “You play opposite a great corner for a year, then the next year you’re the prime guy. That’s the role Gareon will fill this year. He’s as talented, I believe, and as good as any corner in the country.”
In a league already boasting two All-Americans at cornerback -- Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis and reigning Thorpe Award winner Desmond King from Iowa -- as well as other established players at the position, Conley hasn’t received a lot of preseason accolades. Which is OK by him.
“I’ll make a name for myself on how I play this year,” he said. “As far as the media and all the rankings and things, I don’t really look at that.”
Conley is the returning veteran of a very green secondary. At least Lewis still has Sam Hubbard, who played a lot as a true freshman defensive end last year. The three other starters from last year’s defensive backfield are in NFL camps. Conley has been showing the youngsters around him the ropes.
“He’s an unbelievable leader in my room right now,” Coombs said. “We needed him to do that, and what he’s providing has been exceptional. “
Lewis and Conley were overshadowed last year by the slew of NFL draft picks surrounding them. Even this year, they don’t garner as much buzz as fellow returning defensive starter Raekwon McMillan, a 2015 Butkus Award finalist.
Don’t be surprised to see both of them become household names this season.