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The rise of Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore

The No. 1 cornerback prospect’s journey to the 2017 NFL Draft was far from traditional.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

With a team that has as much yearly turnover as Ohio State, we’re often forced to evaluate incoming starters with high school tape and word of mouth from practices. Sometimes that word of mouth reveals ridiculous statistical feats, such as Malik Hooker snagging 40 (!!!) interceptions on the scout team during his redshirt season. It’s also how we found out that Noah Brown was “pretty much unguardable” even before his four-touchdown night in Norman.

Marshon Lattimore’s rapid rise to fame at Ohio State was a lot harder to see coming. Sure, the latest No. 1 recruit from Cleveland Glenville had plenty of hype, but Lattimore was never able to scratch the surface of his limitless potential due to chronic hamstring issues.

The problem began during Lattimore’s first year on campus and he eventually had to get surgery. He was able to participate in seven games as a redshirt freshman before once again going down with a hamstring injury. The presence of future NFL defensive backs Doran Grant, Eli Apple and Conley didn’t make cornerback the most pressing need on the field, but it was still disappointing to see a player with Lattimore’s talent not even get a chance to shine.

"It's aggravating not playing because of an injury when I know I'm ready ... I don't let it break me. I'm keeping my head high ... Right now, I feel the best I've felt since I've been here, so I'm not really concerned."

Marshon Lattimore

Lattimore was able to stay healthy during the 2016 offseason in part thanks to an increased emphasis on preparation and stretching. He won the starting job across from Conley and quickly proved that he more than belonged with the Buckeyes’ group of ball-hawks in the secondary:

Lattimore’s two interceptions against Tulsa earned him national player of the week honors. His size and athleticism were problematic enough for opposing wide receivers, but his true calling card proved to be his impeccable press-coverage technique. Per PFF, Lattimore allowed just two of 12 passes thrown into his coverage on go routes to be caught. Considering Ohio State rarely gives its corners help over the top, this stat demonstrates just how tough it was to beat him deep.

Lattimore proved this point again and again against Bowling Green and Tulsa, but his real coming-out party came against the Oklahoma Sooners. Prior to the game, backup quarterback Austin Kendall pointed out that the Buckeyes ran a basic defense that he thought the Sooners would exploit. Kendall wasn’t exactly wrong, as the Buckeyes do often simply line up in man-to-man coverage or in cover-four. Kendall’s mistake was assuming that the Sooners had the athletes to make Ohio State pay in these one-on-one situations, as Lattimore and co. quickly proved just how dangerous they could be against elite competition that was willing to test them deep:

Lattimore’s ability to lock down any receiver across from him proved to be invaluable. Opposing offenses couldn’t pass downfield on the Buckeyes, and this stifled potential comeback attempts by Michigan State and Wisconsin in crunch time.

Lattimore’s excellent play earned him plenty of accolades and before you knew it, he was a top-prospect for the NFL draft. Man-to-man cornerbacks are becoming one of the most valuable prototypes in the NFL and Lattimore’s college production confirmed the hype that surrounded his alien-like athletic ability.

"Let them think that ... I'm just gonna keep trying to show them that I'm that good. All that, first round and all that stuff I don't really feed into that. I just stay locked in to what I gotta do."

Marshon Lattimore

Lattimore finished the season as a first team All-Big Ten selection and is regularly mentioned as one of the top cornerbacks available in the 2017 NFL Draft. His 4.36 second 40-yard dash certainly helped his draft stock, but his performance on the field was what truly separated him from his peers.

Lattimore was targeted 41 times on the season. He intercepted four of those passes and broke up six. Per PFF, opponents had a passer rating of 30.2 when throwing at Lattimore — the fourth-best mark in the FBS among corners with at least 40 targets.

Oh, and he’s also not afraid to tackle. Per PFF, Lattimore didn’t miss a single one of his 37 solo tackle attempts last season. Cornerbacks with Lattimore’s athletic ability don’t fall off trees, but it’s even more rare to see a specimen also have such great game production to confirm those special athletic traits.

“When you look at Lattimore, every time you watched him you saw a guy that could be a shutdown corner... I really think he has a higher ceiling than any of the other corners.” — Mel Kiper Jr.

Lattimore’s job as the defense’s right cornerback was usually to erase the man in front of him by any means necessary. Malik Hooker would often sit in the middle of the field and survey the receivers, but Lattimore and Conley were mostly on their own on the outside. Part of what makes Lattimore such a special cornerback is not just his ability to play tight coverage, but also his ability to make up ground when he does lose a step on the receiver:

Lattimore’s eyes get stuck in the backfield for a beat too long in the above clip and this momentary lapse was enough to allow the receiver to get a step of separation. Lattimore didn’t panic and he quickly erased the space between himself and the receiver before rising up to make a fantastic play on the ball. Ohio State fans found out how frustrating it can be to watch an offense that is incapable of stretching the defense vertically, but this was a reality for opposing offenses the entire season thanks to the play of Lattimore and Conley.

The other factor that separates Lattimore from some of his peers is his willingness to tackle. Ohio State doesn’t ask its corners to do much in the run game, but its clear that a certain level of physicality is required to make it on the field with the rest of the silver bullets. Lattimore proved to be more than willing to take on any ball carrier and his tackling ability was at times utilized on blitzes:

It’s not like Lattimore lived in opposing backfields, but he regularly stepped up in the run game and blew up wide-receiver screens thanks to his physicality and relentless pursuit of the ball.

Ohio State doesn’t make its defense too complicated for their cornerbacks and this has presented some questions about how pro-ready Lattimore is. His responsibility in college rarely had him covering receivers in the slot and Ohio State seldom ran zone coverage.

Still, one of the most valuable commodities in the NFL today is having a cornerback who can erase the other team’s best wide receiver. There are few college cornerbacks who possess Lattimore’s skill set and even fewer that combine it with his ball skills and press technique. He may have only balled out for one season in Columbus, but look for Marshon Lattimore to continue to make a name for himself on Sundays for years to come.