SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — On an Ohio State team loaded with defensive stars, Shaun Wade often gets second billing. Or third. Or fourth. Or further down the list.
There’s Chase Young, the all-everything defensive end. And cornerback Jeff Okudah, a projected high first-round NFL pick. Safety Jordan Fuller and linebacker Malik Harrison are among others who have higher profiles than Wade, the third-year sophomore cornerback from Jacksonville, Florida.
That’s not a big deal to Wade. He’s an introvert who doesn’t need the limelight. But the Buckeyes appreciate his value. A natural cornerback, Wade was used at safety at times last season. This year, with Okudah and Damon Arnette playing on the outside, Wade has been primarily a nickel cornerback where his speed, size and instincts have made him a force against both the pass and the run.
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"I think Shaun might be the best, most critical player in our defense," Okudah said Tuesday. "I was telling Damon the other day when Shaun's not out there, it just feels different."
Wade missed the Michigan game because of an abdominal injury that he aggravated late against Penn State a week earlier. It wasn’t a coincidence that the Wolverines torched the Wade-less Buckeyes in the first half before Ohio State regrouped to dominate the second half.
Now comes the Buckeyes’ biggest test of the season when they play defending national champion Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl.
"It’s very exciting," Wade said. "They’ve got great receivers room and we’ve got a great DBs room. It’s a big game — my first final four and a lot of people on our team’s first final four."
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Shaun Wade is the oldest of Gwen and Randy Wade’s three children. Randy Wade was a basketball player, and a good one. But grades tripped him up in high school.
"When I had kids, I decided to put the time into them and make sure they didn't make the same mistakes as me," Randy Wade said.
Randy served 20 years in the Navy before retiring recently. When Shaun was young, the Wades spent four years in Italy during Randy’s deployment there. Like his father, Shaun’s first sports love was basketball. Before entering high school at Trinity Christian Academy, he was ranked in the top 30 in his age group nationally.
Wade was also a star running back in Pop Warner football and then transitioned to receiver. He thought his future was on offense. Trinity coaches thought otherwise.
"My coach, coach (Gerard) Ross, told me, ‘I'll make you the best DB in the nation," Wade recalled. "I was like, I'm a receiver. I don’t know what you're talking about."
The transition wasn’t easy.
"I was getting cooked every way," he said. "I had to take a deep breath. I was getting frustrated."
But Wade caught on. By the time he was a sophomore, Utah had issued what became the first in a flood of scholarship offers as he became a five-star prospect. Wade helped Trinity win four straight state championships.
Shaun had obvious natural ability, but his work ethic allowed him to separate himself.
"There would be times Shaun would come home from football practice, go to a basketball workout, come home and eat, do a little bit of homework and then set his alarm at 3 in the morning to finish his homework," Randy said.
Wade signed with Ohio State as part of its loaded 2017 recruiting class and hoped to make an immediate impact. Instead, he was on the sideline because of an abdominal tear.
"As an athlete, you always are doing something," Wade said. "But I couldn’t play football. And even when I came to practice, I couldn't practice. I couldn't even be in the (exercise) pit. I had to go home and rest. That was part of the abdominal tear. I couldn’t be moving too much."
From Jacksonville, Randy Wade knew how his son was struggling.
"That year was very, very, very hard because it was the first time having a sit back and not be a part of a team," he said. "He went through a lot of things. Urban Meyer helped out a lot. Coach Stamp (assistant AD for player development Ryan Stamper) was tremendous during that time."
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Wade returned last year and gradually worked his way into the lineup. He showed glimpses of his ability, but it wasn’t until this season that he really blossomed, even though playing in the slot isn’t his natural position.
"I prefer to be on outside," Wade said, "but I've got to do what I have to do to help this team. I'm probably the best inside player we have this year so they have me inside. My main thing is, I like to win, no matter what. So if I have to play safety, I’ll play safety. If I have to play corner, I'll play corner."
However he’s used, Wade has been a difference-maker. Against Penn State, he was primarily responsible for holding star receiver K.J. Hamler in check.
"What makes him so good is just that his IQ so high," Okudah said. "He always knows what he's supposed to do. With me and Shaun, we don't have to do a lot of talking on the field because we understand each other. We really have a lot of chemistry in the whole secondary."
Unlike Okudah and Arnette, who aren’t afraid to trash talk on the field, Wade isn’t one to run his mouth.
"He's quiet on the field, quiet in person, but when he makes a play, you can feel him," Okudah said. "He kind of turns on a switch. When he hits someone, it's like he goes crazy."
After the season, Wade must decide whether to declare for the NFL draft. He’s projected as a borderline first-round pick. If he returns and plays an outside cornerback spot next season, Randy Wade believes his son can become a top-15 pick.
Shaun Wade said he isn’t thinking about that right now. He is thinking only about Clemson and the chance for a national championship. The Tigers have the most potent offense the Buckeyes have faced, particularly their standout 6-foot-4 receivers, Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins.
"They’re going to actually put the ball up with great receivers," Wade said. "We are looking forward to it. We're not talking any junk. We're just going to let our game talk."