Among Ohio State’s draft-eligible underclassmen, no player’s profile as a future NFL prospect and potential early draft entrant has grown more in the first half of the Buckeyes’ season than slot cornerback Shaun Wade.
While fellow third-years Chase Young, Jeff Okudah and J.K. Dobbins were already being projected as early-round 2020 NFL draft prospects as soon as the 2019 draft ended, Wade didn’t have enough of a résumé to be a prominent name in those discussions before this season. Although he was the Buckeyes’ primary slot cornerback in 2018, he was a situational player last season, and had only one year of playing experience at Ohio State after redshirting as a true freshman.
In the first six games of this season, though, Wade has been a full-time starter for the Buckeyes – even though he’s still playing slot cornerback – and the 2017 five-star recruit has shown his ability to make plays all over the field, recording 14 total tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, five pass breakups and a forced fumble.
That’s been enough to move him firmly onto the radar of NFL draft analysts. In the past two weeks, he’s projected as a first-round pick in mock drafts by The Draft Network’s Joe Marino and Trevor Sikkema. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler included him this week on a list of five “under-the-radar NFL prospects” ready to emerge as future first-round picks.
All of that means Wade will have a very real decision to make at the end of Ohio State’s current season. While he still has two remaining seasons of eligibility, and could probably play an even bigger role in the Buckeyes’ secondary next year, he has the potential to be an early-round pick in April if he continues to play for the rest of the season at the level at which he’s played so far this season.
For now, though, Wade’s trying to block all of that conversation out and focus solely on what he and the Buckeyes can accomplish this year.
“At the end of the day, I’m just trying to get to the natty,” Wade said this week. “That’s my dream, for real. Just to win the natty.”
Wade’s decision is one that could have major implications on how Ohio State’s secondary stacks up in 2020, and the Buckeyes face the possibility of losing all four of their starting defensive backs after this season. Jordan Fuller and Damon Arnette are both seniors, and Okudah – who has been projected to be drafted as early as the top three overall picks next spring – seemingly will have an easy choice to go pro. That’s one reason why the Buckeyes have five defensive backs committed to their recruiting class of 2020.
Ohio State co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Jeff Hafley, though, doesn’t want to think about that right now, either.
“I talk to him about what we have to do at practice today, and what he has to get better at,” Hafley said Tuesday when asked if he has had conversations with Wade about the decision he’ll have to make. “We can talk about that at the end of the season.”
“At the end of the day, I’m just trying to get to the natty.” – Shaun Wade on his current focus
While it would be hard for Hafley to convince Okudah that he should stay at Ohio State for his senior season, at least strictly from the standpoint of improving his NFL draft stock, Wade could have a legitimately tough decision. If he returns next year, he’d potentially have the chance to play more snaps at outside cornerback – which could showcase even more versatility to pro scouts than he’s already shown – and he’d be in position to become the veteran leader of the Buckeyes’ secondary.
The fact that he’s already being regarded as a potential first-round pick in next year’s draft, though, is an indicator of how big a role he’s already playing on Ohio State’s defense.
While a slot cornerback who plays only in nickel packages is often viewed as a team’s third cornerback, that’s not an accurate assessment of Wade’s value to the Buckeyes. His role as a slot cornerback might partially stem from the Buckeyes already having two excellent outside cornerbacks in Okudah and Arnette, but it’s also because Wade has a skill set that enables him to be an elite player in the slot, which has become as important as any position in Ohio State’s new defensive scheme.
“In college, that guy gets targeted a lot. So you have to be multi-talented,” Ryan Day said last week. “You have to be able to play the run. You have to be tough. You have to blitz. You have to be able to play coverage. You have to play man-to-man on a deep ball. You have to be able to do all those things to be really good at that position. Otherwise you have to keep moving different body types in there based on what you're seeing. What Shaun gives us is great versatility because he has all those skills.”
As the proliferation of spread offenses has moved from college football to the professional level, the slot cornerback position has also become increasingly valued in the NFL. For example, Minkah Fitzpatrick played a similar role at Alabama, was the No. 11 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft and was recently traded for a first-round pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers, all while continuing to play slot cornerback regularly.
That said, Wade could still play outside cornerback for the Buckeyes in the future – potentially even this season – as Hafley believes he has the skills to excel in that spot, too.
“There’s no doubt Shaun could play outside. And there’s some snaps where he has played outside. There’s some games where I still think he will play outside. I think he could be a very good outside corner,” Hafley said. “We’ve had those conversations. There’s certain games where we almost flipped it around. But for right now, (the slot)’s where he’s been the most. But I think we have the versatility to move all those guys. So you might see him outside in one of these games.”
Wade has continued to cross-train at both slot cornerback and outside cornerback in practices, keeping him ready to play at either spot as needed.
Personally, though, Wade says he doesn’t have a preference lining up in one spot or the other – he just wants to play where he can help the team most.
“If I came back next year, I don’t know what I’d be playing,” Wade said. “If I had to play inside, I’d play inside. If I had to play corner, I’d play corner. It’s just really what helps the team. That’s all I care about. That’s just really all I care about.”