It’s rare for a team to have a first-round cornerback. It’s close to improbable for a team to have two first-round cornerbacks in the same draft, and it’s even more difficult to replace those lost to the NFL. This is Ohio State’s reality, but the difficulty of the situation seems to be missing.
Without Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley patrolling the defensive backfield, there should be an adjustment period. But, that doesn’t seem to be the case with junior cornerbacks Denzel Ward, redshirt sophomore Damon Arnette and redshirt sophomore Kendall Sheffield — the cornerbacks tasked with shadowing receivers for the defense in 2017.
Ward was the third man in the rotation last season for Ohio State, behind first-rounders Lattimore and Conley, who are now with the New Orleans Saints and Oakland Raiders, respectively. With those two gone, Ward will inherit the top corner spot and attempt to extend the line of succession of Ohio State cornerbacks to the NFL.
Unlike most No. 3 corners on college rosters, Ward has ample experience after just one season in cornerbacks coach and assistant defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs’ rotation, having played the same number of snaps as Lattimore and Conley. Ward was also tied for the team lead in pass breakups (nine) with Lattimore.
“You would never take two first-rounders off the field if the guy coming off the bench wasn’t just as good,” Coombs said Wednesday. “To me, that’s what we do.”
As the rotation stands right now, Coombs and Arnette both said that Ward and Arnette are practicing with the starters and Arnette slides inside to the nickel in three-receiver sets while Sheffield handles the other outside corner position opposite Ward.
Arnette filled the nickel corner spot for much of last year, struggling at times but showcasing his speed and potential to be a future starter on other occasions. Ward has risen as the leader of the unit, but Arnette, who admitted to being nervous in game situations last year and wanting to play like Lattimore and Conley rather than playing his game, is on the road toward maturing as a corner at Ohio State.
“Damon’s always had really good physical skills and he’s always been a little bit lacking from the maturity standpoint and that’s just a grown man conversation that we’ve had over and over and over again,” Coombs said. “He’ll still make some of those mistakes that come from momentary lack of focus. But I’m telling you right now, he’s a football player. And he’s a Buck. You’re going to go get in a fight, you’re going to take Damon with you.”
Sheffield arrived at Ohio State for spring practice, transferring from Blinn College in Brenham, Texas. The former five-star recruit who spent a season at Alabama as a redshirt has been mentioned as one of the fastest on the team, along with Ward, and might possibly be the final fixture in another dominant unit.
“Have you seen (Sheffield)? He looks like an action figure,” Arnette said. “He’s fast, he’s athletic, he’s a great corner. He’s just exactly what we need for that rotation.”
Ohio State’s 2016 secondary finished the season as one of the best units in the country, which had much to do with Lattimore and Conley who combined for eight of the team’s 21 interceptions. Lattimore had one of the Buckeyes’ NCAA-leading seven defensive touchdowns. Yet, similar questions regarding the relatively unproven cornerbacks existed at this time last year.
Is Ward ready to take the jump to No. 1 corner? Can Arnette become a consistent player and stay healthy at the No. 2? Does Ohio State have the right player to fill in at corner when one of the top two need a breather?
From what Ward, Arnette and Coombs all said, they would check the box that says ‘yes.’
“I’m definitely excited about this rotation,” Ward said. “Kendall is also fast, Damon is also fast. Damon, he is a physical player and I am very excited about us just getting out there and getting ready to go play.”