A year after targeting ejection, Shaun Wade prepares for another shot at Clemson

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra

It has been a year since Shaun Wade crashed into Trevor Lawrence in the Fiesta Bowl, but the memories remain vivid for the Ohio State cornerback.

Ejected for targeting following the collision, Wade retreated to a locker room inside State Farm Stadium and watched the second half unfold on a television screen alongside one of the team's equipment managers.

Wade had a peace of mind at first. The Buckeyes held a 16-0 lead over Clemson when he was tossed late in the second quarter and seemed positioned to advance to the national championship game.

Talking with his parents and girlfriend over the telephone, he was further consoled by the possibility of returning for the final. Because the penalty occurred in the first half, Wade was not required to miss any more playing time.

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Only the Buckeyes unraveled as the night continued. Between interceptions, overturned calls and a late scoring touchdown drive engineered by Lawrence, Clemson's star quarterback, their season ended in heartbreaking fashion.

“We just shot ourselves in the foot,” Wade said. “I know we should have won that game.”

Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade speaks to his teammates before the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 19. Wade considered going to the NFL after last season but returned because of the Buckeyes' potential.

Now, Wade finds himself with an opportunity to return to the field for a College Football Playoff semifinal rematch against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl on Friday night.

The loss has lingered as motivation for the past 12 months. Though at times a chance for revenge seemed uncertain because of the coronavirus pandemic, prompting the Big Ten to cancel a fall season before changing course in September, it never fully receded as a possibility in Wade’s mind.

Since middle school, he usually has emerged a winner. His Pop Warner team captured a national championship, and in all four years in high school at Trinity Christian Academy in Jacksonville, Florida, the Conquerors won state championships. He hoped for similar success at Ohio State and committed to the program after it won a title in the first season of the playoff era.

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“I’m 1,000% convinced that the reason he came back was because of how that game went and finished,” Buckeyes defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said.

The pursuit of a national championship was one of two primary reasons Wade put off entering the NFL draft to return for a fourth season, going against advice from his parents to turn pro. He achieved his other goal this summer when he graduated with a degree in sport industry.

The disappointment over last season’s loss to Clemson is largely over the final result, less about the controversial targeting penalty and his role in one of the game’s most scrutinized sequences.

There’s only so much room for second-guessing.

Shaun Wade of Ohio State tackles Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence in last year's Fiesta Bowl, drawing a targeting penalty that prompted his ejection from the game.

As he rushed into the backfield while on a blitz, Wade was in position to sack Lawrence and leaned forward to deliver a hit. But anticipating contact, the quarterback lowered his body to cushion the potential blow.

The corresponding move drew helmet-to-helmet contact, leading to the targeting call, because it was too late for Wade to adjust his momentum.

What else could he have done? It was something he and his parents went over in the aftermath.

“It's hard to lower your head going that fast and keep your head up for that split-second,” said Wade's father, Randy. “You lower your head, you get as low as you can so you can get a good hit on them. It's something you can't control. I know he doesn’t regret that (play). He regrets not being out there.”

There have also been enough TV replays and relivings of the sequence in the past year that have led to acceptance.

“The targeting call is what the targeting call is,” Wade said. “I can't do anything about it. It's the call they made, so I just live with it to this day.”

Shaun Wade

If the Buckeyes are to prevail in a rematch and get past their biggest playoff roadblock, Wade likely will play a large role.

He has all season.

Wade took over for Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette as Ohio State’s best cover corner, sliding to outside corner from slot corner.

It was the place in the secondary Coombs envisioned for Wade when first recruiting him out of high school more than six years ago. In the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Wade, Coombs saw a long and fast cornerback who would make for an ideal fit on the outside, holding the preferred physical makeup.

“That’s who we look for at Ohio State,” Coombs said.

Bigger cornerbacks can jam receivers and be more physical with their hands in press-man coverage, which is demanded on the outside. Unlike slot corners who play a few yards off of the receivers, outside corners often start their matchup at the line of scrimmage.

Wade ultimately adjusted to his new position and settled in this season, received All-America recognition and became the first Buckeye to be named the Big Ten’s defensive back of the year.

But it wasn’t an overnight transition, and he acknowledged some of his struggles during the season, including in early-season games against Penn State, Rutgers and Indiana.

The adjustment was complicated by an offseason filled with pandemic restrictions. Most of spring practice was canceled in March at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak and a months-long shutdown of facilities that scattered Ohio State’s players, leaving Wade with little time to learn a new position with Coombs, who had returned to Columbus after two seasons as an assistant in the NFL.

It is possible he would have missed time in a normal spring as he was rehabbing from surgery from a lingering abdominal injury. 

To help him with new techniques, Coombs cut film of some of the bigger NFL cornerbacks, a half-dozen of them that included Pro Bowlers such as Marshon Lattimore and Patrick Peterson who are 6 feet or taller.

When players returned in the summer, workouts were largely individualized as the team followed social-distancing guidelines. Scrimmages or even 1-on-1 repetitions were tabled.

“You can't practice press man-to-man from 6 feet away,” Coombs said.

His improvement in coverage will be needed against Lawrence, who leads one of the nation's best passing attacks. 

Constraints have continued throughout the season, from mask requirements at the facility to daily virus testing. Wade said the hardest part has been isolation. He spends most of his time away from the Woody Hayes Athletic Center at an apartment he shares with fellow cornerback Tyreke Johnson, a close friend since middle school.  

But he hasn’t seen his family since September, nor his girlfriend or other friends he had met in previous years at Ohio State. At times, it’s been lonely.

“It is tiring because all you do is football and school,” Wade said.

Shaun Wade (24) brings down Michigan State receiver Jalen Nailor in a Dec. 5 game in East Lansing.

There is comfort in the fact that the finish line is near, an awaited goal not far off on the horizon.

His mother, Gwen, recalls how long her son has thought about the opportunity.

When they met after the Fiesta Bowl last December, one of the first things he brought up was the fact that Ohio State was set to return a good team this fall and had a chance to write a better ending. Wade was down, but kept pointing to this season.

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\“It was just like, 'Next year, we got to come and play and got to do it,' ” Gwen said.

Both parents are proud of his effort and appreciate that he has a second shot at Clemson and a national championship.

For 36 days in late summer, it appeared he might not realize one amid an unforeseen pandemic and decision by the Big Ten to call off a season.

Randy Wade, who was one of the most vocal parents to push back against the conference, views this as coming full circle for his son and hopes he’ll have a chance to leave everything on the field in New Orleans, something he didn't have in the last semifinal meeting.

“Truly as a parent, it's about him having a good game and just giving his all,” he said. “That's what sports are all about. It's not about the 'W'. It's about the effort and hard work you put into it and actually executing that hard work and showing it on the field. It's so cool.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman