The rumors started on December 8. That was the day that junior cornerback Denzel Ward was one of eight Buckeyes expected to be made available to speak with the media.
Ward never made it.
His absence provided a hint of an answer to the questions that he was going to face.
With more and more NFL prospects skipping their respective bowl games — and Ward a projected first-round draft pick — everyone wanted to know if he was going to play in the bowl game. To hear his coaches tell it, even if he would have answered the question, it would have only been done with uncertainty. But an uncertain answer in that situation is one that is only going to bring more questions and create more distractions.
So, instead, the media session never happened, but the rumors persisted, and Urban Meyer and the rest of the Buckeyes were adamant that everyone would be available to play in the Cotton Bowl.
Ultimately, the decision was made by Ward to sit out, but it wasn’t a decision that he came to easily or quickly.
“Well, it began after the championship game,” Urban Meyer said. “And I was out on the road recruiting and I come back and a lot of people are pulling — you know, this is an interesting – I don’t necessarily agree with everything. But a lot of people pulling and telling stories, and everybody has opinions and all of that.
“And you’re talking about not a good young man but a great young man. And his mom is not a good mom, a fantastic mom. They were asking our opinion. And it went everywhere from a play to maybe third downs to maybe special teams to he was practicing. And the decision wasn’t made until, I don’t know, probably yesterday. It went all the way to ‘I’m going to play the whole time’ to ‘What do you think?’ So that’s it.”
Ward practiced the entire time, which still didn’t silence the speculation. Cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs prepared the entire time not to have Ward, which was the only way to be sure they’d be prepared for USC’s passing attack.
“I didn’t know officially until probably the last 24-48 hours,” Coombs said after the game. “We’ve had ongoing conversations. He practiced every day. We prepared for him not to play. I mean that would be foolish not to. So we practiced a lot of guys in those roles, which is why I think they played so well.
“I think because they had 15 bowl practices, which is equivalent to a spring, to get out there and get a lot of work done. We talked about individual improvement at the beginning of the bowl and I think that Kendall [Sheffield] and Damon [Arnette] and Jeff [Okudah] all demonstrated that, as well as Amir [Riep] and Marcus [Williamson] who didn’t get to play corner, but played on special teams and got better.”
Some of Ward’s teammates said after the game that he had been dealing with some health issues, but Coombs clarified that Ward’s decision had nothing to do with injuries. He was healthy enough to play.
“That’s an individual choice,” he said. “I love Denzel. I would have loved to have coached him one more game, but that’s selfish on my part. We won the game. So, the good news is that we’ve got enough at Ohio State to win the game when that occurs, and we’re a little excited about that.
“So, I think to me, I couldn’t be more fired up. I’m ready for next year. If we start spring ball tomorrow I’m not going to be disappointed because I’ve got some really good guys coming, and we’re gonna play.”