Denzel Ward was arguably the best cornerback in college football this past season. Per most NFL draftniks, the League views him as the best draft-eligible cornerback in in the nation, and for good reason.
Ward finished third in the Big Ten this past season with 17 passes defended. He intercepted two passes and ended up with 37 tackles for the Buckeyes in 2017.
A starter in a three-man rotation in each of the past two seasons, Ward is about to join his 2016 linemates Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley as first-round draft picks.
Ward’s departure will leave a large void in Ohio State’s secondary, as will cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs’, but there are a number of options for replacing Ward and possibly even growing OSU’s three-man rotation into a quartet.
The Buckeyes are looking for a third, or a fourth, to join returning starters Kendall Sheffield and Damon Arnette, which is why neither of those players will be listed as options to replace Ward. The first name off the board is the guy who joined Sheffield and Arnette in the Cotton Bowl — Jeffrey Okudah. As a true freshman, Okudah established himself as the team’s No. 4 cornerback. He played in every game, and was involved late in the game in both the Cotton Bowl and Big Ten Championship Game. He was a standout on special teams and every expectation is that he will emerge as a starter in 2018.
Two other freshmen corners played last season, though mostly on special teams. Amir Riep saw action in every game and was another productive tackler in kickoff coverage, and he even picked off a pass in a late-game defensive stint. Marcus Williamson played in 10 games for the Buckeyes, including each of the final five games. Both players were high 4-star prospects coming to Ohio State and are arguably the two best cornerbacks produced by Ohio since Gareon Conley, Denzel Ward, or Marshon Lattimore.
The most intriguing candidate in this group is Shaun Wade, who redshirted due to an abdominal injury this past season. Wade was a 5-star signee for the Buckeyes and had some very good moments in the spring, despite not being 100% healthy at the time. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds as a true freshman, Wade is finally healthy enough to participate in winter workouts and will once again be a player to watch in the spring. For all of the attention that Jeffrey Okudah has received, Wade was right beside him in the recruiting rankings a year ago. Former cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said Wade would have absolutely played last season if not for the injury.
The Buckeyes will also add two true freshmen to the mix, and they are both already on campus. Tyreke Johnson and Sevyn Banks are both 6-foot-1, so they fit into the Okudah/Wade mold. Johnson is ranked the No. 1 safety in the 2018 class, while Banks earned an offer prior to his senior season after missing his junior season due to injury. These two obviously have their respective work cut out for them if they are going to replace Denzel Ward.
Everybody should be healthy and good to go, which means that there will be six cornerbacks competing for possibly two spots in a four-man rotation. The constant drive for a rotation came from Kerry Coombs, but it is part of the fabric of OSU’s defense now, so it should continue. The reason it may grow, however, is because of the talent that the Buckeyes have brought in over the last two recruiting classes. The experience gained by Amir Riep and Marcus Williamson will help greatly in the spring. Shaun Wade didn’t play last season, but this will be his second offseason and spring, which should allow him some comfort and familiarity. Tyreke Johnson and Sevyn Banks may be swimming a little bit in this group.
The best and safest bet here is that Jeffrey Okudah continues his trajectory and steps in for Denzel Ward. Okudah has prototypical measurables and experienced some stressful situations as a true freshman, so he will be able to put all of that to good use in 2018. Also expect Shaun Wade, Marcus Williamson, and Amir Riep to fight for a fourth spot in the rotation. Coombs always said he would play as many as are good enough to play. Will defensive coordinator Greg Schiano and new defensive coach Alex Grinch feel the same way?
I fully expect Shaun Wade to emerge this spring as a contributor to the Ohio State defense. It would not be a surprise to see the three-man rotation expand by one. There is going to be a tremendous competition to break into the rotation, and it may be a competition that doesn’t get settled until conference play rolls around. Once the dust settles, however, expect Wade to have earned significant playing time on defense.
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