The first round of the NFL draft is just three days away, and Ohio State is expected once again to send a cornerback into the first round.
Denzel Ward is expected to be the latest in a long line of Buckeye corners to be selected in the first round, carrying on a tradition started by now-former cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs.
Starting with the 2014 draft, Ohio State has had a corner taken in the first round every year with the exception of the 2015 draft. Bradley Roby was off the board with the 31st pick in 2014, before Eli Apple (No. 10, 2016), Marshon Lattimore (No. 11, 2017) and Gareon Conley (No. 24, 2017) followed suit.
A former NFL head coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano arrived in Columbus in 2016 when Ward was just a sophomore. While Ward didn't come to Ohio State with much hype, as the No. 270 overall recruit in the country according to 247Sports, Schiano said he saw elite talent in him almost immediately.
"I remember when I first arrived, I guess that first spring, he really performed at a high level. I really thought the world of his performance. And then remember he hurt his wrist. I don’t think people realize, that was a significant thing and he played through it the entire year," Schiano said. "Then last year, I think he developed into an established starter who played at a very high level. He’s really a very, very good NFL prospect. He’ll be a very good corner in the NFL."
During his junior year, Ward broke up 15 passes, collected a pair of interceptions and was named first team All-Big Ten by the media in 2017. He is expected to be a top-10 pick come Thursday night, but there is one knock on Ward that could impact where he ultimately is selected.
At 5-foot-11 and 183 pounds, Ward is viewed as slightly undersized for his position. Schiano, however, said Ward does enough things well that most NFL teams will be able to work around his lack of size.
"Everybody’s a little different. When you’re talking about Denzel, so maybe he’s a half-an-inch short. Okay, I get that. If he’s 5’8”, that’s a different story. People say, ‘Why?’ Well, when balls get caught by that much and they’re a touchdown, that’s how seasons are decided," Schiano said. "So every inch counts, but I think you have to take into account his ability to track the ball, ability to jump, his arm length, all of those things because they’re not cookie-cutter."
The counterpoint in Ward's defense is that while he might be slightly undersized, he does not play like it. The Nordonia High School product played physically throughout his Ohio State career, and showed in multiple games as a Buckeye he wasn't afraid to hit.
His big hit against Maryland cost him the rest of the game, as he was ejected, but the Big Ten later issued a statement saying that Ward's hit was clean and that he should have been allowed to stay in the contest.
Ward is widely viewed as one of the top two defensive backs in the upcoming draft along with Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick. His speed is what makes him such a hot commodity, as his 4.32 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine was tied for the fastest time among all players.
Schiano, who has been in NFL draft war rooms before, believes Ward is one of the top players in this year's pool of talent regardless of where he is picked.
"That first spring I thought he performed at a high level," Schiano said. "I guess when you do it for a number of years that I have, you’ve been around enough of the great ones that you said, ‘This kid could be a great one,’ and I think he is. I think he’s going to have a fantastic NFL career.
"An incredibly hard worker on and off the field and if he’s deemed to be a little short, I’m sure he’ll make up for it with his speed and his vertical jump and his timing. I think he’s as skilled as anyone that’s coming out this year."