Best on best? Why OSU's Shaun Wade will have his hands full with Heisman winner DeVonta Smith
When Shaun Wade decided last January to return for this season rather than enter the NFL Draft, he did so with the intent to prove that he can play outside cornerback while winning a national championship.
Here’s what he told The Athletic about that decision:
“I’m a first-round talent and I didn’t want to fall back in the draft. That’s the main thing. I know I’m a first-round talent. I just need to get some film at corner, and I also want to graduate and be with my brothers for another year, be a captain and have another chance to win the natty.”
Heading into Monday’s national championship game against No. 1 Alabama, Wade is 1 for 2. He has a chance for a natty, but his play has not shown that he is a first-round pick (though he still may wind up as one given what he did in 2019). His move to the outside from slot corner has been a tough adjustment. Wade has a 66.2 grade from Pro Football Focus, which ranks 187th among qualified FBS corners. In coverage, he has a 64.2 grade, which is 218th among qualified FBS corners. In other words, he has been far from the lockdown corner Ohio State has had in recent years. (Though to be fair, he isn’t paired with an elite pass rusher like the Bosa brothers or Chase Young like previous Buckeyes corners.)
As The Athletic’s draft expert Dane Brugler tweeted after Ohio State’s win over Clemson, “Shaun Wade’s 2020 film was really, really rough. His 2021 film isn’t any better.”
The good news for Wade is that he can improve his stock against one of the college football’s best offenses in recent history and one of the best receivers in recent history. Playing Alabama is always a prime opportunity for prospects because NFL scouts trust in Bama’s talent (for obvious reasons).
The bad news for Wade is that there isn’t much to suggest from the 2020 season that he is capable of turning in the type of performance he needs to vault himself into a surefire first-rounder — and more importantly, the type of performance that Ohio State needs from him in order to contain an offense averaging 48.2 points per game and 7.8 yards per play.
It wasn’t that long ago that Wade was the most indispensable player on the Ohio State defense. As a slot corner in 2019, Wade was physical on short routes, and he also loved playing the run.
The Buckeyes’ defense was undoubtedly worse without him. He sat out the Michigan game, and Shea Patterson threw for 250 yards in the first half before Ohio State finally adjusted. Then there was the game against Clemson in the CFP in which Ohio State blew a 16-point lead after Wade was ejected for targeting.
Wade’s versatile skill set had many excited for what he can do against No. 1 receivers on the outside, and he seemed to be next in line for a program that has had 6 cornerbacks drafted in the first round since 2016. He may still do that (PFF had him at No. 22 before the Clemson game) because covering the slot is such a valuable role in the NFL, but it won’t be because of what he’s done this season. He has 2 interceptions, 1 of which he returned for a TD.
Take the Clemson game, for example. Cornell Powell is a decent player, but he’s still a fifth-year senior who didn’t top 50 receiving yards in a game until the 34th game of his career, a little over 2 months ago. In other words, he’s not the caliber of player Wade would face in the NFL. Yet Powell made Wade look silly on multiple occasions on his way to 8 catches for 139 yards and 2 TDs.
Shaun Wade likely needed strong tape at outside cornerback to lift his stock into the first round.
and we just haven't seen much of that pic.twitter.com/ZbBHNIybFT
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) January 2, 2021
Defenses haven’t been afraid to go after Wade like they were with Jeff Okudah last season. Even if Wade appears to be in good position, he is giving up big plays, like this one to Penn State’s Jahan Dotson.
Here, Indiana’s Ty Fryfogle draws a pass-interference penalty and still goes for a touchdown.
Considering Wade has given up huge plays in 3 of Ohio State’s 7 games, it’s a little puzzling that Wade was a consensus All-American (though voting took place before the Clemson game). These awards are sometimes just voted on by reputation, like how LSU’s Grant Delpit won the 2019 Jim Thorpe Award despite a down season. And considering Ohio State boasts the 116th-ranked pass defense (no, that is not a typo) while facing only 1 passing offense ranked higher than 40th (Clemson), it doesn’t make much sense. And it’s a bit frightening to think what the No. 1 pass offense will do against a secondary that just hasn’t had a ton of time to gel (thanks, Big Ten!) after having 3 players drafted in 2020.
Wade has almost always played outside this season, as 383 of his 437 snaps have been there, per PFF (compared to just 12 of 527 last season). Alabama loves to move Heisman-winning receiver DeVonta Smith around, as he has lined up in the slot 258 times, compared with 473 out wide (and 5 in the backfield). At one point or another, Wade will get his chance against the best receiver in college football. And if Jaylen Waddle actually comes back to complement Smith, woo boy.
Wade may wind up being a very good NFL player because of his proven ability to play in the slot, an area where a lot of players struggle. But in terms of Monday’s game against Alabama, offenses haven’t been scared by him at all on the outside, and that could be trouble for Ohio State’s defense.