Ohio State has churned out four first-round cornerbacks since Urban Meyer’s arrival in 2012. Bradley Roby, Eli Apple, Marshon Lattimore, and Gareon Conley all arrived on campus with a considerable amount of hype and eventually emerged as elite corners for great Buckeye teams.
Next up: junior Denzel Ward. All we really knew about Ward going into last season was his status as the Buckeyes’ fastest player. Now? He’s fresh off of a season where he performed well as the No. 3 corner in the nation’s most-talented secondary. Way-too-early 2018 mock drafts have Ward coming off the board in the late-first round. Ohio State’s coaching staff certainly doesn’t appear to be worried about their new No. 1 cornerback.
“[Ward is] as good as the other two. I played three guys of equally talented ability ... I don’t run out a guy who is not as good as the other guys. Who would do that? Have you met my boss?”
— Ohio State Cornerbacks Coach Kerry Coombs
Coombs isn’t kidding. Ward rotated snaps with Conley and Lattimore all season, and held up just fine in coverage despite lacking the same length and experience as his teammates. Per CFB Film Room, Ward didn’t contest passes at the same rate as Conley or Lattimore, but he also wasn’t called for a single pass interference penalty and didn’t allow a touchdown:
While Conley and Lattimore are long, elite athletes in every way imaginable, Ward is a bit smaller at 5’11” 180 pounds. These days, cornerbacks under six-feet tall are considered short.
The good news is that Ward might be the fastest player on a team full of freak-athletes, and he plays bigger than his size suggests. Just ask Oklahoma’s 6'5" 250 pound TE/WR Mark Andrews:
Ward has long been willing to lay down some big hits — he made good use of his time as the first man down the field on the Buckeyes’ kickoff unit as a freshman — but he’s about to be Ohio State’s No. 1 cornerback because of his sticky coverage ability and ball skills.
“I just gotta go out and play like I’m the starting corner ... the No. 1 corner here.”
— Denzel Ward
Ohio State primarily plays cover-four or man-to-man coverage. Both of those coverages have the same No. 1 rule for the defense’s outside cornerbacks: don’t get beat deep. Believe it or not, tracking Big-Ten wide receivers 40-plus yards on an island down the sideline is easier said than done, but it’s something Ward has shown the ability to do.
Despite having zero interceptions last season, Ward is unique in his ability to not only track receivers deep, but to get in a position to make a play on the ball. He tied Marshon Lattimore for the team lead with nine pass deflections, in part thanks to his freakish leaping ability:
Ward’s mindset with the ball in the air is simple: mine. Cornerbacks don’t have the same freedom in Ohio State’s defense as we’ve seen from safeties like Malik Hooker and Vonn Bell, but this hasn’t stopped the cornerbacks from making risky breaks on the ball in order to create turnovers. Ward’s twitchy ability to start-and-stop helps him track receivers across the field and beat them to the ball point:
Ward wasn’t consistently in a position to get two hands on the ball last season, but it’d be shocking to see him not record at least an interception or two this time around.
“It’s just exciting ... I’m ready to take that leadership role in the cornerback room and help lead the team.”
— Denzel Ward
Ohio State’s top cornerbacks have continuously made leaps in their ability from season-to-season. It wasn’t that long ago that Connor Cook was picking on Gareon Conley to the point that an injured Eli Apple had to come in and play. Ward’s first season as a significant contributor didn’t result in as many flash plays as his first-round counterparts, but that’s perfectly fine. An extra off-season with some of the best secondary coaches in the country should help Ward join his past teammates by hearing his name called sometime on Thursday in April 2018.