Kerry Coombs is a believer in strength in numbers.
Last year, the Ohio State defensive backs coach committed to regularly playing three cornerbacks — Gareon Conley, Marshon Lattimore and Denzel Ward — with a fourth, Damon Arnette, also seeing extensive time.
That’s why, despite the early exit of Lattimore and Conley to the NFL draft this year (with each being projected as first-round picks), Coombs isn’t pushing the panic button this spring.
He has Ward and Arnette, and a bevy of stellar newcomers from the Buckeyes’ No. 2-ranked 2017 recruiting class. Coombs is pushing them onto the field in spring drills with plans of drawing deep from that well this fall.
“What I know is this, and I learned it a long time ago: Fresh, fast legs win in press man-to-man coverage,” Coombs said after practice Thursday. “And we are going to have fresh, fast legs. Whatever we have to do to make that happen, we’re going to make that happen.”
He is leaning on Ward to be the leader. Though it’s true that Ohio State lost both starting cornerbacks from last year’s team, Coombs is quick to point out that Ward saw roughly as many plays as Lattimore and Conley, rotating in throughout each game.
“It’s definitely a blessing that the coaches have got that belief in me that I could go out there and play with them, play with the best,” Ward said of the experience.
Now that he is the lone returning “starter,” as Coombs refers to him, “I am ready to take that leadership role in the cornerback room and help lead this team,” Ward said. “It is a responsibility. I’ve got to carry on what those guys left behind. Gareon and Marshon, they were two great leaders.”
The cornerbacks room is flush with new talent, including early-enrollee freshmen Jeffrey Okudah, Shaun Wade and Marcus Williamson. Also in the mix is junior-college transfer Kendall Sheffield, who started his college career as a five-star signee with Alabama in 2015 before stepping away for a season at Blinn junior college in Texas.
“He’s a really, really talented player,” Coombs said of Sheffield. “Just by the nature of having experienced it at a couple of other places, I think that gives (him) an edge when you walk into the meeting rooms and things like that.”
So Sheffield might be a little ahead in joining a rotation sure to include Ward and Arnette. But Coombs said he would not be averse to rolling six or seven corners through the mill, which would include the nickel back position.
“Shaun, Jeff and Marcus are really good players,” Coombs said. “They should be going to the prom, and they have put themselves through (the winter conditioning program) and my anguish for the first three months of this year, and they have come out the other side as very effective players.
“Are they good enough yet? No. But we’ve got a long time between now and Aug. 31. They have all the skill sets that they need to be phenomenal players, and they will be.”