COLUMBUS, Ohio — Denzel Ward didn’t exactly have the easiest first steps on his journey to Ohio State. The elite cornerback also might have brought his career to an end one game sooner than the Buckeyes might have liked.
But the path between led him right where it has taken so many Buckeyes cornerbacks before him: The NFL draft and a first-round selection when the Cleveland Browns took him at No. 4 overall.
From the start, Ward worked to prove that he belonged. First while trying to earn a scholarship, then a spot in the lineup and finally his place in the legacy Ohio State has built in its secondary. Now that his time with the Buckeyes is officially coming to an end as he heads to the pros, here’s a look back at the key points along the way.
Camp commitment caps recruitment of Denzel Ward
The physical tools were never really much of a question, and the analysts had Ward pegged as a consensus 4-star prospect with the ability to develop into a premier cornerback. But coming from a Nordonia (Macedonia, Ohio) program that wasn’t exactly known as a hotbed of top-flight talent, Ward ended his junior year of high school without any scholarship offers.
They would eventually come in bunches once Ward flashed his athleticism on the camp circuit. And Ohio State waited until it had a chance to evaluate him up close and on campus in June 2014 before it made any decision about pursuing him. Once the Buckeyes saw the way Ward flew around the field, took coaching and fought in competitive situations, they were sold. And like so many in-state products, Ward jumped on board with a commitment on the spot.
Cracking the Ohio State rotation
The blazing speed that helped set Ward apart as a recruit also made him an appealing option on special teams as a freshman. That early experience set the scene for a breakout that some might have overlooked nationally as a sophomore.
Thanks to Ohio State’s talent-laden secondary that featured a pair of future first-round draft picks starting at cornerback in Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley, Ward perhaps never received the credit he deserved for squeezing into the rotation and playing just as many snaps as those two veterans.
Ohio State consistently referred to him as the third starter in that bunch after he finished with 9 passes broken up and 23 tackles, but Ward still entered last season facing some questions about whether he could be the team’s top shutdown coverage threat. Any skeptics were silenced relatively quickly as Ward defended 17 passes (the fourth-highest total in Ohio State history) and nabbed 2 interceptions on the way to All-America honors. When the Buckeyes were snubbed from the College Football Playoff despite winning the Big Ten, he elected to sit out the Cotton Bowl and protect his projected first-round draft status.
What made Denzel Ward a star?
From the beginning, Ward’s incredible, high-end speed put him in a different category than most defenders — even though he was considered undersized at 5-foot-11, and 191 pounds. But blending the ability to run with any wide receiver alongside solid technique and unflappable confidence helped produce the latest superstar off Ohio State’s assembly line of professional cornerbacks.
Ward is quiet and comes off as shy when he’s away from the field, but he clearly relishes the spotlight on game day. He never backed down from a challenge with the Buckeyes. Now he’s off to find a new one as Ward’s journey takes him to another level and another chance to prove he’s one of the best players in the nation.