Denzel Ward is a man of few words.
Ask any kind of question to the Ohio State cornerback and you’ll be fortunate to get a complete sentence as a response. It’s not intended to be disrespectful; that’s just the way Ward is. He’s quiet, soft-spoken and rather humble. At least in a media setting, anyway.
Ward’s position coach, Kerry Coombs, is, well, quite the opposite.
Coombs is a loud, fast-talking, confident assistant coach who, frankly, has earned the right to be just that. The Buckeyes are currently pumping out first-round NFL Draft picks at cornerback at an alarming rate and Coombs is the man responsible for both recruiting and developing those players.
So, if you ask Ward how good he is you get this response: “I thought I did a pretty good job [last year]. I’ve still got a lot of things to work on.”
Ask Coombs about the talented junior cornerback, however, and there is a bit of a different feel.
“I’m telling you [Ward is] as good as the other two,” Coombs said Thursday after Ohio State’s seventh practice of the spring. “He doesn’t have to say it. I’m telling you that. I think he believes it, he just doesn’t have to say it.”
The “other two” in this case are Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley, the dynamic duo of Buckeye cornerbacks from the 2016 season who are likely first-round picks in next month’s NFL Draft. They earned the majority of the headlines last season for their on-field performance, but Ward played just as many snaps as Ohio State used a three-man rotation. Coombs said the production between all three was nearly identical.
Lattimore and Conley each had four interceptions last season while Ward had zero, but each had seven passes defended, according to CFB Film Room, and the completion percentages against were all similar. Lattimore allowed 13 completions on 36 targets (36.1 percent); Conley allowed 14 completions on 43 targets (32.6 percent); Ward allowed 15 completions on 42 targets (35.7 percent). Ward did not allow a touchdown in coverage; Lattimore and Conley each allowed just one.
“[Ward is] as good as the other two. I played three guys of equally talented ability,” 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?”
The moment Lattimore and Conley both opted to declare early for the NFL Draft, Ward instantly became the elder statesman in Coombs’ meeting room. It was a quick transition, but it’s a challenge the Nordonia, Ohio native said he’s looking forward to.
“It’s just exciting,” Ward said. “I’m ready to take that leadership role in the cornerback room and help lead the team.”
Added Coombs: “He doesn’t have to say anything in that room to lead those kids. The respect they have for him is incredible.”
Listed at just 5-foot-10 and 191 pounds, Ward may not have the height desired by many NFL personnel to be considered first-round picks (Conley and Lattimore are both listed at 6-foot). But Ward is arguably Ohio State’s fastest player — he was a former state champion sprinter in high school — and should he have another standout season this year as a junior, there’s a strong chance he could continue the pipeline of first-round cornerbacks to come out of Columbus. After all, that is the new normal at Ohio State.
The soft-spoken Ward won’t say much about that, though. He’d rather his game do the talking.
“I just gotta go out and play like I’m the starting corner,” Ward said, “the No. 1 corner here.”