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10 most important Ohio State Buckeyes in 2017: No. 4 Denzel Ward

We’re counting down the most important Buckeyes for the 2017 season.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

When looking at the 2017 depth chart compared to the 2016 depth chart, there are noticeable holes, but the team is in a much better place now than it was entering the 2016 season after a mass exodus of NFL departures and graduation. Using key departures, spotlighting players at important positions, leadership qualities, and recognizing the depth at each position, we came up with the 10 most important players on the team. They may not be the most heralded players, or even the best players, but they will be vital to this team’s on-field success.

No. 4: Denzel Ward

Position: Cornerback

2016 stats: 23 total tackles, 9 pass breakups

Ohio State graduated both starting cornerbacks from last season, and not one, but both of them were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. Losing two-year starter Gareon Conley and No. 11 overall pick Marshon Lattimore will most certainly hurt the Buckeye secondary, but luckily, they have a player in Denzel Ward who has played in 25 straight games to instantly fill one of the openings and ease the transition to a bunch of inexperienced, yet talented, underclassmen.

“I’m telling you [Ward is] as good as the other two,” Coach Kerry Coombs said during spring practice. “He doesn’t have to say it. I’m telling you that. I think he believes it, he just doesn’t have to say it.”

What people might not know about Ward though, is that he was actually on the field almost just as much as Conley and Lattimore — playing in 468 snaps in 2016. With Coombs typically using Conley and Lattimore to shadow the opponent’s top two receivers, Ward was utilized to man-up on the team’s third wideout. Per CFB Film Room, Ward was targeted the second most on the team (42) behind Conley (43) and only allowed 15 receptions on the season. They had him charted for nine first downs allowed and he let up zero touchdowns on the season. Not too bad for your third corner.

Not only did the Buckeyes lose their two starting corners, but they also lost the best playmaking free safety in the country, Malik Hooker. Hooker was able to mask any coverage deficiencies downfield, and possessed elite range that made it borderline impossible to throw the deep ball on the Ohio State secondary. With sophomore Jordan Fuller likely to take Hooker’s spot, it only makes sense that the defense could be a step slower this season. The departure of an elite free safety makes Ward’s job even more important and difficult. He’ll be most likely asked to shadow the team’s No. 1 receiver, while playing across from a first-year starter at corner and in front of a first-year starter at free safety.

Coach Coombs is very excited for the potential of the 5’10, 190-pound junior cornerback. “He’s a very gifted player,” Coombs said. “He’s had a great offseason and he’s demonstrated some terrific leadership. I’m very excited about him.”

Ward’s leadership and talent will be key to an extremely young positional group, and he could be Coach Coomb’s fifth(!) first rounder in as many years.