INDIANAPOLIS — Until last season, Denzel Ward stayed largely under the radar at Ohio State.

In 2016, he shared time at cornerback with Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley, who became first-round NFL draft picks. Even last season, when Ward emerged as a star, he was a reluctant one. Players such as J.T. Barrett, Billy Price and Tyquan Lewis were faces of the program more so than Ward, who seldom did media interviews.

Those days are over. Ward is now front and center among Ohio State players entering this year’s draft. Of the 11 Buckeyes at the NFL combine, he is the only one considered a first-round lock and could go as high as the top 10.

“It’s crazy,” Ward said to the scrum of reporters during his media availability. “I just want to be that next guy to come out of Ohio State, to leave early and be that next first-round draft pick and produce in the league.”

>> See video of Denzel Ward at media availability

Almost nobody expected Ward to remain for his senior season in 2018. But Ward left one game earlier than many expected when he decided not to play in Ohio State’s Cotton Bowl victory over Southern California.

“It was definitely a difficult decision,” he said. “There were many conversations with the coaches (about) what I was going to do. At the end of the day, it was my decision to sit out. It was really not to risk injury.”

He said he would have played if Ohio State had been selected for the College Football Playoff.

“It’s not that I didn’t want to play the game,” he said. “I wanted to play. It was hard. I’m glad we got the win.”

Ward said NFL teams have asked him about sitting out, but said they don’t seem preoccupied with the topic, given that he’s not the first to skip a bowl game.

Ward is considered a can’t-miss prospect. Though he isn’t the biggest cornerback at 5 feet 10 and 191 pounds, he has elite athleticism, instincts and has shown the toughness to take on bigger receivers. Few receivers got separation on him last season, and he also made critical plays on special teams.

Ward is expected to post a gaudy time in the 40-yard dash on Monday, though he was coy when asked for a prediction.

“Fast,” he said. “Very fast. No number. We’ll see tomorrow.”

Ward also is determined to shine in one other combine drill — the vertical leap.

Like fellow Buckeye Jalyn Holmes, Ward has a fundraiser based on his combine result. Ward’s is Inches for Education in memory of his father, a middle-school principal who died unexpectedly in June 2016. More than $6,000 has been pledged already toward college scholarship money for high school seniors.

“My dad was my role model in my life and someone I really looked up to,” Ward said. “It was very difficult when my dad passed away. I wanted to do something to honor my dad, just because I know he would enjoy seeing me here.”

Donations to Inches for Education can be made at https://pledgeit.org/denzel-ward.

A confident Webb

Damon Webb, Ohio State’s other defensive back at the combine, said he has gained 14 pounds of muscle while training for the combine.

The safety played at 195 pounds last year. Now he’s at 209.

“I feel I got more explosive and faster,” Webb said. “These past few months of training have definitely helped me a lot.”

Webb is considered a likely late-round pick, but like tight end Marcus Baugh earlier in the week, he believes he is the best player at his position.

“I feel I am the best safety here,” Webb said. “I feel I’m a hybrid safety. I can play in the box. I’ve got post range and can also play man-to-man.”

He said he hopes to run 4.4 seconds “or lower” in the 40 on Monday.

“I think it will help me a lot and prove a lot of people wrong,” he said.

OSU’s Jerome Baker, who wanted to break the combine record (4.41) in the 40 for a linebacker, ran a 4.53 on Sunday.

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