COLUMBUS, Ohio — In the spring of 2013, Ohio State cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs made a bold proclamation.
“We’re going to have great expectations that you’re gonna play — and they are gonna play,” Coombs said of his unit. “And they’re gonna end up being first-round draft picks. That’s the standard in our room — be a first-round draft pick.”
At the time, it sounded like nothing more than a cute, quotable line — lofty expectations from an energetic assistant coach. Sure, the Buckeyes should expect to produce their fair share of NFL draft picks — even first-rounders. But to possess a top-level NFL prospect year in and year out? Even for the most optimistic of coaches, that seemed like a pipe dream.
On Thursday night, Marshon Lattimore, the consensus top-ranked cornerback in the 2017 NFL Draft, is set to become the fourth cornerback — and third first-round selection — picked out of Ohio State in the past four years. A fifth, Gareon Conley, could also come to fruition, although the once-projected first-rounder’s draft status is now up in the air amid an investigation into an alleged sexual assault.
“Some guys go careers without coaching four first-rounders,” said Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer. “We’ve had one in four (years) of them.”
Everybody wants to do what Coombs is now doing and yet, it seldom occurs. Dating back to 2000, only Alabama and Miami (Fla.) also can claim to have produced three first-round cornerbacks in a four-year span. Should a team still select Conley in the first 32 picks, it would make him and Lattimore the first duo of first-round cornerbacks from the same school in 15 years.
How is Coombs doing what seemingly no one else in college football can? According to the sixth-year Buckeyes assistant, his success stems from a chain reaction that was set in place around the time he issued his first-round edict four years ago.
“Because that is the standard, they watch the guys ahead of them who sit in the front row and they know that is what it takes to be that guy,” Coombs said.
It’s a process that began with Bradley Roby, an All-America selection under Coombs selected by Denver with the No. 31 pick of the 2014 draft. Doran Grant (fourth round, 2015) and Eli Apple (No. 1o overall, 2016) followed, leading to this year’s crop of Lattimore and Conley.
Junior Denzel Ward already looks as if he might be next.
“Coach Coombs has done a nice job of developing that room,” Meyer said last year. “We talk about it all the time: there’s certain cultures within position groups that are fantastic, and there are others that aren’t. Right now our corner room is.”
Coombs’ momentum has carried over to the recruiting trail. In February, the Buckeyes signed five cornerbacks, including the players ranked as the top two in the nation at the position in Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade, as well as former 5-star prospect and JUCO transfer Kendall Sheffield.
Now those players will learn from the likes of Ward and Damon Arnette, just as Ward and Arnette learned from Lattimore and Conley and so on and so forth.
“That’s what has taken place,” Coombs insists. “It’s not me, it’s them.”
And to a degree Coombs is right. At this point, nobody’s having as much success when it comes to recruiting cornerbacks as the Buckeyes are. That was evident last week when Coombs insisted that despite losing two potential first-round picks, his position group is as deep as it’s ever been.
Yet despite his players’ natural talent, Coombs deserves his share of credit. If not for his players’ success, then for putting in motion a cycle that has allowed it to thrive — and become contagious — on an annual basis.
“They understand what the standard is,” Coombs said.
Since he set it four years ago, it hasn’t changed.