In a recent spring football practice, an Ohio State receiver accelerated on a takeoff route, cornerback Marshon Lattimore gave chase, and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs gritted his teeth.
“It makes me nervous every time there’s a deep ball and he has got to rip and run,” Coombs said, referencing Lattimore’s history of hamstring ailments. “I don’t want to see it yet. When he looks me in the eye and says coach, ‘I’m good, I’m ready to go,’ then I want to see it.
“But we’ve certainly seen enough (to know) this kid’s a special talent.”
Enough, in fact, that when asked who would replace NFL-bound Eli Apple if a Buckeyes game were imminent, Coombs didn’t pause.
“If we played tomorrow it would be Marshon,” Coombs said.
At the moment, though, Ohio State is in the midst of spring practices, and Lattimore has plenty of company in the chase to join incumbent Gareon Conley as a starting corner.
Coombs said others competing for the position are Denzel Ward, who played some on special teams as a freshman last year, and redshirt freshmen Damon Arnette and Joshua Norwood.
“In all honesty, Norwood has got to get better. He’s not ready yet,” Coombs said. “But those four kids are going to play week one if they’re all healthy. And that’s very exciting.”
At least that’s the plan. Coombs said Apple and Conley each took part in more than 1,000 plays, including special teams, last season. A better number would have been in the 700s, but Coombs said that hasn’t happened in recent years because the starters were good “and because our backups haven’t been good enough.”
But to gain moxie, a cornerback usually has to experience getting burned before being considered fully baked, and Coombs said Lattimore, Ward and the others need all the targeted practice they can get.
“You’re going to get calloused here because they’re going to throw the ball deep on you, again and again and again in practice,” Coombs said. “They know if you give up deep balls you can’t play here.
“They’d better have a short memory. If they’re thinking about that (last) one or they don’t have the guts to (take another challenge), they’re not going to play.”
Lattimore and Ward believe they’re up to the challenge. Ward might be the fastest player on the field; he expects to be in the 4.2-second range when he is next timed in the 40-yard dash.
“I feel like my speed is my greatest strength … and I feel like I did a pretty good job on special teams,” said Ward, who was one of only four true freshmen to play for OSU last year.
Lattimore came in as a top prospect three years ago only to be stunted by hamstring problems, eventually undergoing surgery. Simply being able to cut it loose again this spring makes him happy.
“I’ve just got to show I can play,” said Lattimore, who saw limited action in seven games last year. “It’s a lot of players and I’m just going to battle, try to be tough, and just lock down the receivers. … We’re head to head right now. The better man wins.”