Ohio State's Future First-Year Starters Who Could Be Drafted in the 2018 NFL Draft

By Kevin Harrish on May 2, 2017 at 10:10 am
Johnnie Dixon and Kendall Sheffield will look to prove they have NFL talent.

At this time last year, few around the nation had heard the names Marshon Lattimore or Malik Hooker. Eleven combined interceptions and five pick-sixes later, the pair heard their names called during the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.

Hooker and Lattimore went from bench players to first round picks in a year. Throw Noah Brown into that group, and the Buckeyes had three players drafted that didn't play a meaningful snap the previous season before their emergence.

After another NFL exodus, Ohio State will once again have to fill a number of positions with first-year starters, providing an opportunity for unproven Buckeyes to vault to the top of draft boards by the end of the season.

We take a look at some potential first-year starters who could hear their names called in the 2018 NFL Draft after just one big year wearing Scarlet and Gray.

Denzel Ward — CB

This one is as almost too obvious to include on this list.

If you ask Kerry Coombs or anyone in the cornerbacks room last season, Denzel Ward was considered a starter. He was in a position battle with Marshon Lattimore at the beginning of the season and though he lost the battle shortly before the start of the season, he was listed as a co-starter throughout 2016 and played just as many snaps as Lattimore and Gareon Conley, another first-round pick.

Still, he wasn't technically a starter because he never actually started. But he almost certainly will in 2017.

Ward is smaller than Conley or Lattimore, but he more than makes up for it in speed. A source told Eleven Warriors he is "easily the fastest player on the team." His height didn't seem to hurt him with the ball in the air last season either. He had nine pass breakups in 2016, which is tied with Lattimore for the team best.

If Ward was good enough to play as many reps as Conley and Lattimore, narrowly lose a position battle to the No. 11 pick in the NFL Draft and be listed as a co-starter throughout the season, it's realistic to think he's a future NFL player. Coombs seems to think so.

"He’s as good as the other two," Coombs said. "I don’t run out a guy who is not as good as they other guys. Who would do that? Have you met my boss?"

If that's the case, expect Ward to be a first-rounder next season.

Erick Smith — S

Erick Smith came into Ohio State as the nation's No. 6 safety and the No. 3 player in the state of Ohio. Entering his fourth season, he's played very few meaningful minutes due to a combination of injuries and talent ahead of him.

Throughout his Ohio State career, Smith has sat behind Vonn Bell, Tyvis Powell, Malik Hooker and Damon Webb — three NFL players and a future draft pick. The ACL injury he suffered during his sophomore season surely did not help matters, either.

This season though, Smith is competing for the open starting safety spot with sophomore Jordan Fuller. If he wins the job and showcases the talent and promise he had coming out of high school, he could find his way onto draft boards by season's end.

Dante Booker — LB

Dante Booker earned the starting WILL linebacker spot before the 2016 season, beating out teammate Jerome Baker.

His starting spot was short-lived; Booker sprained his MCL during the season opener against Bowling Green and was ruled out for several weeks. He was considered healthy enough to play later in the season, but with Baker excelling, the team elected to keep him on the sideline and give him a medical redshirt.

Booker appears to once again be a favorite to earn one of the outside linebacker spots in 2017. Few people outside of the Woody Hayes Athletic Complex have seen Booker's potential, but those inside are adamant he's hungry and will be a strong contributor for the Buckeyes in 2017.

One source of optimism is this: not too long ago, Booker was ahead of Baker on the depth chart. Last season, Baker was the team's second-leading tackler, had the second-most tackles for a loss, the third-most sacks and picked off two passes, one of which he returned for a touchdown.

If Booker can top that, watch out.

Tracy Sprinkle — DT

Ohio State lost two starters in its season-opening 67-point win over Bowling Green; Tracy Sprinkle injured his patella tendon in the game and missed the entire 2016 season.

Sprinkle earned the starting defensive tackle spot before the season and was one of just two players at the position to have game experience entering the 2016 season after starters Adolphus Washington and Steve Miller graduated.

Urban Meyer and Larry Johnson were ready to rely heavily on Sprinkle entering the 2016 season. His loss was a huge blow.

"That's the worst part of this darned game is when a guy gets hurt," Meyer said after Sprinkle's injury. "Especially a guy like that who has committed so much to this team and program."

Sprinkle has yet to show his potential, but if he was slated as a starter on one of the most talented defensive lines in the country last season, a solid rebound season could propel him into the draft.

Kendall Sheffield — CB

With Ward owning one of the starting cornerback spots, the other spot is up for grabs. Junior college transfer Kendall Sheffield will look to earn one that spot.

Sheffield is a former five-star freshman who signed with Alabama. After redshirting his freshman season, Sheffield transferred to Blinn College where he played for a year and was the top junior college cornerback in the 2017 class. He, of course, committed to Ohio State.

Make no mistake, Sheffield is coming to play immediately. He has top-level talent, game experience and came to Ohio State because he knows it's an NFL factory, or "DB U" if you will.

“Really, really, really talented player," Coombs said of Sheffield. "He’s a very, very good player and he’s got the skillset that we need."

Sheffield is game-ready and should play immediately. If he shows the talent the coaches believe he has, he might be one-and-done at Ohio State.

Johnnie Dixon — WR

Johnnie Dixon has been plagued with injuries throughout his Ohio State career. Since his arrival in Columbus, he's dealt with nagging injuries in both knees.

The speedy four-star receiver out of Palm Beach, Florida was the No. 9 receiver in the country coming out of high school. The Buckeyes hoped he would be a deep threat similar to what Devin Smith brought to the offense.

Dixon has been healthy all spring, and during the spring game fans got a look at just how electric he can be. A healthy Dixon he hauled in six passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns and was named the game's MVP.

If Dixon remains healthy and plays like he did during the spring game, he could find himself atop draft boards next April. And while he has one more season of eligibility after 2017, he would almost certainly vault to the NFL following a successful season, given his injury history.

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