ARLINGTON, Texas — When the time came for warmups Friday at AT&T Stadium, No. 12 was nowhere to be found on the home side.
Word spread quickly Denzel Ward, Ohio State’s best cornerback and a likely first-round pick in the NFL draft, was not playing in the Cotton Bowl despite being at full health. Ward became the first Ohio State player to join the recent trend of pro prospects skipping bowl games to protect their draft statuses.
Naturally, the decision inspired debate on both sides.
Is a non-playoff bowl worth it for a surefire NFL draft pick?
Even in Ohio State’s locker room, not everyone agreed with sitting out. But most expressed an understanding for anyone who makes that decision with their future in mind.
“When you’re in college, you don’t have much say-so. Coaches can just up and leave when they get a new opportunity,” Buckeyes linebacker Chris Worley said. “They can leave whenever they want, whereas players, you can’t necessarily leave unless you transfer or get kicked out. Even sometimes when you leave and try to transfer, there are places where a coach won’t sign off on you transferring, things like that.
“I feel like, as long as coaches can leave whenever they want, a player, if he feels that way, can sit back.”
The junior cornerback traveled to Texas with the team and practiced during the week as he debated whether to play.
Ward, whose father died suddenly at age 46 in May, 2016, said in a Twitter post that “at the end of the day I feel this is the best decision for my family and I.”
Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said he doesn’t “necessarily agree with everything,” in the play-or-not debate, but also expressed deep admiration for Ward.
“A lot of people [are] pulling and telling stories, and everybody has opinions and all that,” Meyer said. “You’re talking about not a good young man, but a great young man. And his mom is not a good mom, [but] a fantastic mom.
“They were asking our opinion, and it went everywhere from a play, to maybe third downs, to maybe special teams to he was practicing. It went all the way to ‘I’m going to play the whole time,’ to ‘What do you think?’”
Ohio State cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said the decision ultimately rested with Ward.
“That’s an individual choice,” Coombs said. “I love Denzel and I would’ve loved to coach him one more game, but that’s selfish on my part. We won the game, so the good news is we got enough at Ohio State to go win the game when that occurs.”
Perhaps the best case for skipping a bowl game occurred with the Buckeyes on the field. During Ohio State’s 2016 Fiesta Bowl game against Notre Dame, Fighting Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith lost millions of dollars on one snap.
Smith was projected as the No. 1 linebacker in the next draft, yet a gruesome knee injury — multiple torn ligaments and lasting nerve damage — sent Smith from a possible top three pick to the second round.
Ward was not the only player to sit out this bowl season. UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen and Florida State safety Derwin James, also high projections, skipped their respective games.
While Ward is likely to be the first Buckeye selected, fellow teammates who are draft prospects — defensive ends Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard and center Billy Price — all played in OSU’s 24-7 victory against Southern California. Hubbard declared his intent to enter the draft Saturday.
Worley said he understood Ward’s choice, but said he always wants to play if he is healthy enough to do so.
“Personally, I think if you are able to play, you should play,” Worley said.
However, Worley added he thinks players planning ahead could be beneficial in the long run.
“I do think that, down the line, it may be good in some aspects of the game,” Worley said. “Players will take care of themselves and their families just like everyone else would do.”
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