Denzel Ward was issued the uniform number 12 by coincidence.

He didn’t ask for it, and the Ohio State cornerback didn’t know it had any special significance. Now it does.

That was his father Paul’s number during his brief football career in high school before he switched to basketball. On May 2, 2016, Paul Ward died unexpectedly at age 46 of cardiac arrest. He was a revered intermediate-school principal in Bedford, Ohio. An overflow crowd of mourners attended his funeral. A street was renamed in his memory.

“I always think about him,” Denzel said. “Some days are more difficult than others, but I go out and play for him every day.”

Ward has done so exceptionally well. On Tuesday, the junior was named first-team all-Big Ten in media voting, and he is expected to be a first-round pick in next year’s NFL draft, assuming he forgoes his final year of eligibility.

But he said all that is on his mind is Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.

“It’s a lot of motivation,” he said of a possible NFL career, “but really all my focus is just on winning this next game.”

Speed and heart

Nicole Ward said she’d like to take credit for her son’s speed. Track was her sport as a kid. She said other aspects of Denzel’s athleticism came from her husband.

Denzel was always fast, but he was a late bloomer physically. He weighed only 130 pounds as a Nordonia High School sophomore when Jeff Fox became coach.

“He was a little kid who obviously had all kinds of athletic ability,” Fox said. “He earned some opportunities on Friday night as just a little guy. You saw there’s potential.”

Fox quickly became fond of Ward. He loved his competitive spirit as well as his humility.

“He’s just a quiet, unassuming kid,” Fox said. “He’s not exactly what you think of when you think stereotypical competitive corner, and I love that. He’s just a great young man who plays his butt off and is as competitive as anyone but doesn’t have a brash personality because of it.”

When he arrived at Ohio State, Ward had grown to 5 feet 10½ but weighed only 167 pounds. (He’s now 6 feet and 191.) Nicole was stunned upon when meeting some of Denzel’s new teammates when the Wards dropped him off at Ohio State.

“I just remember standing in the elevator next to these humongous football players, thinking to myself, ‘If they hit my son, I don’t know what (would happen).’ They looked gigantic compared to Denzel.”

But Ward said he wasn’t intimidated. He had that inner toughness and that amazing speed, which has almost become a state secret.

“He is the fastest guy we have had here (under coach Urban Meyer),” Ohio State strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti said.

Best in big games

Ward was one of only four true freshmen to get playing time on the Buckeyes’ star-studded 2015 team. Last year, he shared time with Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley, both of whom became first-round NFL picks after leaving early.

This year meant a different role.

“I just wanted to be a leader and lead those young guys and be a No. 1 corner here at Ohio State,” Ward said.

That he has done. According to CFB Film Room, opposing quarterbacks had completed only 34.8 percent of their passes when targeting Ward prior to the Michigan game. Ward was named co-defensive player of the game against the Wolverines.

“I think he’s playing at a very high level, particularly the last few weeks,” cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said. “I think it’s great when your best players play their best in big games and I think he’s doing that.

“He’s maturing as the season goes. That was hard, to be thrust into the leadership role at the beginning with a very inexperienced group back there. I think has time has gone on, he’s been able to spend a little more time on himself and he’s playing very well right now.”

Ward has also excelled on special teams. His punt block against Penn State when Ohio State desperately needed a momentum changer might be the season’s most important play. Last week, Ward blocked an extra-point attempt, another key turning point.

“I just try to find a way to make plays wherever I can on the field,” Ward said. “I love going in and playing special teams and making a difference.”

Ohio State receiver Terry McLaurin said that competing against Ward in practice has made him better.

“He is such a smart corner,” McLaurin said. “He’s very patient, and he has blazing speed. You almost have to strategically release to get open on him. He’s not going to give you anything. Every catch is going to be contested.”

Ward prefers to do his work quietly, on and off the field. He said he doesn’t engage in trash-talk unless an opponent starts it. He prefers to avoid the media as well, though he is cordial in those rare interactions.

“He has a humble spirit and a humble heart, and I just think that what he does speaks for itself,” Nicole Ward said. “Maybe his mind-set is that 'I can show you better than I can tell you.' ”

That he has done, with his father on his mind and the No. 12 they share in his heart.

“It’s very special,” Ward said. “That was my dad’s number. I take it to heart and take a lot of pride in it.”