Ohio State's Three First-Round Worthy Defensive Backs Provide Another Valuable Recruiting Tool for Urban Meyer

By Eric Seger on March 24, 2017 at 8:35 am
How Marshon Lattimore, Malik Hooker and Gareon Conley are trying to give Ohio State an even stronger recruiting pitch.

By now you know the story.

Ohio State lost three defensive backs early to the NFL Draft after it went 12-1 and thumped Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl to close out the 2015 season. Twelve months later, the season ended at the same location and the exact same number of stars from the secondary elected to take their talents to the next level.

The New York Giants made Eli Apple the 10th overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft. Vonn Bell came off the board 51 picks later to New Orleans. Tyvis Powell didn't hear his name called over the course of the draft's seven rounds but signed as a free agent with the Seattle Seahawks. He made the team out of training camp and now plays for his hometown Cleveland Browns.

Now, Malik Hooker is one of if not the highest-rated safeties in this year's class. Marshon Lattimore is in the same boat as a potential game changer at corner. Additionally, Gareon Conley has seen his stock shoot towards the moon following a stellar performance at the NFL Combine last month. Hooker and Lattimore are all but destined to be first rounders. The odds Conley makes it three Buckeyes among the first 32 picks grow with each passing day.

“Gareon Conley, they don’t have him rated as one of the top corners in the draft but he went to the Combine and ran great and everybody’s shocked. That’s something I’ve been seeing since I first came here.”– Malik Hooker

The power of Ohio State, the power of Urban Meyer and the coaching, recruiting and developing prowess of Kerry Coombs and Greg Schiano are on full display.

“It just shows that Coach Meyer and his staff do a great job developing NFL players,” Hooker said on Thursday following Ohio State's Pro Day. “You look in the NFL now with Zeke, Mike Thomas, those are guys who were basically rookie players of the year and stuff like that. It just shows you they do a great job developing players.”

Ezekiel Elliott led the NFL in rushing as a rookie and Thomas posted the best rookie season for a receiver since some guy named Randy Moss. Sean Payton and the Saints drafted Thomas and Bell last season, then saw both become huge parts to that franchise's future in the Big Easy.

They're not the only players from Ohio State to don a Saints uniform and help bring in victory after victory.

“One thing about an Ohio State football player," Payton said, "Man, they come ready. The competitive spirit that they've had ... We've had Malcolm Jenkins, of course, Will Smith, Ted Ginn Jr. is coming in, Michael Thomas, Vonn Bell. You know you're getting somebody who has been battle tested. They're accustomed to winning. They're accustomed to competing.”

Coombs embodies the competition part of things. After all, Lattimore was listed as a co-starter with Denzel Ward for the duration of the 2016 season. Now he could be a top-5 pick in the NFL Draft, exiting the program after just one year as a starter. Hooker did the same — he only has 13 game tapes at safety despite being in Columbus for three years.

Conley is the old head of the trio, a two-year starter who left after his redshirt junior season. He doesn't necessarily have the "wow" plays like Hooker or the pure straight line speed of Lattimore but isn't a slouch in what is an incredibly strong cornerback draft class.

“Gareon Conley, they don’t have him rated as one of the top corners in the draft but he went to the Combine and ran great and everybody’s shocked,” Hooker said. “That’s something I’ve been seeing since I first came here.”

Coombs felt the same way about Conley when he inserted him into the starting lineup before the 2015 season even began. Conley struggled at times in 2014 and yielded to Apple and Doran Grant, then blossomed into a lockdown player. Lattimore and Hooker did too, almost as quickly as they became presumed first round picks.

When asked Thursday about the potential of his defensive backfield teammates all being first rounders, Lattimore couldn't help but smile. Who could blame him?


“Oh, man,” he said. “It'd be a great feeling, just because us, we're so close. For us three and I know Coach Coombs and Coach Schiano are going to be extremely proud and happy.”

Conley didn't speak with reporters at Pro Day, busy with team meetings. But he said at the Combine what Lattimore and Hooker did on Thursday about the next players in line to fill their slots at Ohio State. They have the potential to put together an even better season than what the three of them and Damon Webb did in 2016. Reminder: Hooker, Lattimore and Conley combined for 15 of their team's 21 interceptions and returned four for touchdowns.

“I feel like they got the same opportunity, just at Ohio State,” Lattimore said. “Just be better than us.”

And so the cycle of draft picks from the secondary continues at Ohio State. Only this time, it could carry with it a strong scent of first round flavor.

“I've known Coach [Meyer] for a long time and the one thing is, when you watch a practice, you recognize they are getting better,” Payton said. “It's going to demanding. It's not for everybody — but it's a special place.”

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