By Jim Naveau
COLUMBUS – He was a young kid thrown into a tough situation and it didn’t go well.
But Ohio State sophomore cornerback Gareon Conley appears to have put all that behind him.
He got his first career interception in a 38-0 win over Hawaii last Saturday, deflected a pass that became an interception by Vonn Bell and broke up two other passes. Against Virginia Tech in the season opener he tied for the team lead in tackles with eight.
Now that he’s in the starting lineup it appears he’s there to stay. Last year, he didn’t stay long at all when he made his first career start against Michigan State in a November showdown.
Eli Apple was battling a sore hamstring so Conley got the start in his place at MSU. Two big pass completions later over Conley and the coaches were asking Apple if he thought he could play.
“It got to a point where we said, ‘Eli, you’ve got to go,’ and Eli said, ‘I’m ready,’ ” Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said after OSU beat Michigan State 49-37.
In the aftermath of that game, Conley wasn’t ready to let go of the fact he didn’t play well in his first big moment on center stage.
“I felt down in the dumps. I knew I couldn’t get that play back but I just kept thinking about it over and over again and it led to more bad plays,” he said. “I’m probably going to have more bad plays because nobody is perfect. I know now after every bad play you have to snap and clear and play the next play.
“My confidence level is the biggest difference. Last year I was a thinker. I was worried about what if this, what if that,” Conley said. “Now I just play to my ability and I know that my coaches and my teammates are confident in me.”
If he is what he has appeared to be in OSU’s first two games, opposing defenses will have an even harder time locating a vulnerable spot in the Buckeyes’ defense.
Conley called his interception one of the happiest moments of his life. “The adrenaline rush I had and all my teammates tackling me — best feeling ever,” he said.
He beat out talented players like Damon Webb and Marshon Lattimore to get the starting spot that belonged to senior Doran Grant last season.
Both Ash and head coach Urban Meyer have called him the most improved player on OSU’s defense.
“He’s No. 1 (in terms of improvement). He a guy that a year ago, we all saw it coming,” Meyer said. “He was just a little undersized when he first got here. But I like to think that people say Ohio State doesn’t just recruit good players, we develop them.
“Gareon has been playing great. He’s outstanding. He’s one of our fastest players, too.”
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.