Cornerback Denzel Ward was one of four true freshmen to receive playing time in 2015 for the Ohio State Buckeyes. The sixth-ranked class in the country, with 27 players in all, had little impact on a 12-1 season because the roster was so full of talented, experienced players, many of whom will play in the NFL this fall.
“I was a little surprised,” Ward said last week after a spring practice. “Everyone is good here. It’s all about who’s in front of you.”
Ward, of Nordonia High School in Macedonia, Ohio, earned playing time on special teams and impressed everyone with his speed. Players wear chips in their shoulder pads to measure their speed, and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said Ward hit 28 miles per hour in one game.
“He’s really fast,” Coombs said. “In straight-line speed, he’s as fast as anybody we’ve had. (Bradley) Roby was our fastest guy in the back end, and he’s close to that.”
Linebacker Jerome Baker, offensive tackle Isaiah Prince and cornerback Erick Glover-Williams were the other three freshmen who didn’t redshirt last fall. Even a little bit of experience helps. That’s what Coombs sees with Ward, who’s entering his sophomore season as a strong candidate to earn playing time at cornerback.
“It gives you a greater confidence level,” Coombs said. “What we do is very hard. You’re on an island. You’ve got to play. That takes great confidence, and confidence comes from playing and having successful play. That’s what Denzel did. The last half of the year on special teams, Denzel was lights out. He walks on the field right now he feels pretty good about what he’s doing.”
If the season started last week, Coombs said Ward would get playing time behind starters Gareon Conley — the only returning starter in the secondary after the loss of safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell and cornerback Eli Apple — and redshirt sophomore Marshon Lattimore.
“It’s exciting,” Ward said. “I’m just trying to have fun and prove I can start at cornerback. There’s a bunch of young players who are all trying to learn our way.”
Damon Arnette, a redshirt freshman, will also be the mix at corner, as will Joshua Norwood, a redshirt freshman, who Coombs said isn’t ready yet.
Coombs doesn’t want the starting cornerbacks playing more than 1,000 snaps. He said Conley played 1,013 snaps last fall, and Apple played 1,003.
“We would love a situation where we could knock that down to 700 reps and have a bunch of kids getting playing time,” Coombs said. “Denzel’s going to compete. Damon Arnette is going to compete. Marshon obviously is competing. Gareon is competing. Damon Webb moved over to safety, and he’s going to compete over there. We’ve got a lot of really good talented guys in our room who are going to compete to play. They’re not competing to be backups.”
The backups didn’t play last season because they weren’t good enough, Coombs said. It was the same two years ago when the Buckeyes threw Gareon Conley into the mix during the game against Michigan State and he got burned right away.
“Gareon goes in, and where do they go?” Coombs said. “They go right at him. They scored in three plays. If they go out there and they’re not ready, they’re not going to play.”