COLUMBUS, Ohio — Although Ohio State is set to return 15 starters this season, the Buckeyes still have holes to fill. That includes replacing the Ohio State player picked highest in the NFL draft in April, Marshon Lattimore.
Having had a player selected at the position in each of the past four drafts, the Buckeyes have become accustomed to replacing top-level cornerbacks. And with the Oakland Raiders choosing Gareon Conley later in the first round, Ohio State now will have to do it with two top-tier players.
With as well as Urban Meyer has recruited, the Buckeyes have no shortage of options to choose from. But while several players will help make up cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs’ rotation, it’s already clear who Ohio State’s new No. 1 cornerback will be.
What exactly are the Buckeyes replacing and who will they do it with? Let’s take a look.
A former 4-star prospect, Lattimore arrived at Ohio State facing high expectations. Coming from Cleveland Glenville High School, Lattimore ranked as the nation’s No. 6 overall corner and the No. 1 player in the state of Ohio.
Hamstring injuries, however, forced the highly touted player to redshirt in 2014 and limited his action to just six games a year later. Entering his redshirt sophomore season, Lattimore seemed more like an afterthought than a candidate to replace Eli Apple.
But with his hamstrings finally healthy, Lattimore emerged as a breakout star on the Buckeyes defense. Playing in all 13 of Ohio State’s games, the rangy corner recorded 41 tackles, 9 pass breakups and 4 interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
As a result, Lattimore earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first and only season as a starter in Columbus. The Saints selected Lattimore with the No. 11 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Although Lattimore and Conley sat atop the Buckeyes depth chart, Coombs considers junior Denzel Ward a returning starter. And the Ohio State cornerbacks coach is demanding the media do the same.
“You guys keep saying he wasn’t a starter last year. And I know he didn’t walk out onto the field for the first snap of the game, but he played the same number of snaps as Marshon and Gareon,” Coombs told reporters this spring. “So I would prefer it if you guys would refer to him as the third starter at corner. Because that’s what he was. We had a true three-man rotation.”
Coombs isn’t wrong. While Lattimore and Conley garnered most of the headlines, Ward enjoyed a strong sophomore season, tallying 23 tackles and 9 pass breakups. He enters the spring as the Buckeyes’ undisputed top cornerback but likely will remain part of a rotation in what Coombs has deemed his deepest cornerbacks room yet.
While Damon Arnette, Kendall Sheffield, Jeffrey Okudah, Shaun Wade and Marcus Williamson each should see plenty of playing time, Ward is the player the Ohio State staff is counting on most. And given its recent track record with cornerbacks, it’d be tough to argue with its plan.
What Ohio State coaches say about Denzel Ward
Buckeyes cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs: “He’s a very gifted player. He’s had a great offseason, and he’s demonstrated some terrific leadership. I’m very excited about him.”
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer: “Denzel Ward’s probably the fastest on the team. He [was] DQ’d in the state 100 [meters], but he got the 200-meter championship [in 2015], so he’s legit, track fast.”
Much as with the middle linebacker position, the race to replace Lattimore as Ohio State’s No. 1 cornerback ended before it ever truly started. Ward will be on the field with the Buckeyes first-team defense when the season opens in Bloomington, Ind., on Aug. 31, and if all goes according to plan, he’ll become the fifth Ohio State cornerback selected in the first round of the NFL draft in the last five years.
That’s not to say the Buckeyes’ younger cornerbacks won’t get their opportunity to shine, especially with Ohio State’s other starting corner spot still up for grabs. But at the moment, only Ward can say his starting status is set in stone.