COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State’s top four cornerbacks are all different players with their own skill sets and styles of play, but they all share one trait that’s vital to their craft.
“I think it’s a position that has to be played by really fast people,” Buckeyes cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said. “We have recruited for speed.”
Of those players, one in particular stands above the rest. Sophomore Denzel Ward is largely viewed by Ohio State players and coaches as the fastest player on a roster stocked with elite speed. He’s gotten endorsements in that category from head coach Urban Meyer, fellow cornerback Gareon Conley and plenty of others since arriving in 2015. An Ohio high school state champion in the 200 meters, Ward finished his Nordonia High School track and field career with personal bests of 10.49 seconds in the 100 meters and 21.38 seconds in the 200.
That speed was enough to get him on special teams as a true freshman, and Coombs called him the fastest player on the kickoff coverage team. In the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame, Ohio State’s player data clocked him at 21.8 miles per hour on a kickoff, the fastest of any Buckeye in that game. Although he was one of only four members of the class of 2015 to avoid a redshirt, his speed wasn’t enough to earn him consistent reps at cornerback.
Ward did make some appearances in games that were out of hand, but he didn’t develop quickly enough to become a player that could help lighten the load of Conley and fellow starter Eli Apple.
“We needed him to play at corner more, but he wasn’t ready to do that,” Coombs said. “He is now.”
The Nordonia product is entrenched in the program’s tightest battle for a starting spot, but it won’t necessarily be his speed that’s worth crediting if he ultimately wins the job over Damon Arnette and Marshon Lattimore. Over the last few years, the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Ward has steadily gained strength without losing any of his speed.
Coombs called him “sneaky strong” and noted that he’s the second-strongest cornerback on the team. Just four years ago, however, he looked much more like a sprinter than a player destined to play Division I football.
“My first year here at Nordonia was his sophomore year,” said Nordonia head coach Jeff Fox said, “and we knew he was pretty special, but he was a 130-pound kid. We were finding ways for him to rotate in at varsity and you could see his quickness but he just wasn’t a physically mature kid.
“It was immediately apparent that we needed to find ways to get him the ball, and he showed he was dynamic when he had it. It was just a matter of him growing up and blossoming.”
One year later, he let his coaches know he was more than just a track star who happened to play football.
“We were playing Green High School at home, and they had a pretty good receiver,” said Scott Barwidi, who coaches defensive backs and track and field at Nordonia. “They sent him into the flat and Denzel was playing in a Cover-2. This kid ran into the flat and the quarterback unfortunately threw it to him, and Denzel almost cut him in half. It was one of those moments where you could see his confidence explode.”
He grew into a player that ultimately gained notice from Ohio State, but his development wasn’t complete then — and still isn’t now. It’s progressed far enough, however, that Coombs can envision Ward trotting out alongside Conley for OSU’s first defensive series against Bowling Green on Sept. 3.
With all other things equal, it’s all about speed. Now that Ward has caught up with others in strength and physicality, his superior speed can separate him from others who can’t match it.
“When you have exceptional speed, you have a little bit better opportunity to make up if you get beat, and he has that,” Coombs said. “He can get ahead of guys on go routes and go become a receiver, which I think is important. He’s really fast, and that’s a good thing to have at our spot.”