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Ohio State's NFL pipeline of defensive backs shows no sign of slowing

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Kerry Coombs admits to being a little nervous. And if the Ohio State cornerbacks coach could be in the building on Monday to offer his support in person and maybe help his players shake off their own anxiety, he would do it in a heartbeat.

He’s still toying with the idea of swinging over to Indianapolis on Sunday just to see the former Buckeyes in person and offer a few words of motivation ahead of their on-field NFL combine workouts. But no matter what, Coombs will have to watch the performances of Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore on delay and rely on text updates, because his day is already reserved for developing the next first-round pick to come out of his meeting room.

“The reality is, at this point, it’s performance time and they don’t need another guy making them nervous and all that kind of stuff,” Coombs said. “What they need to do is just go be who they are. I’ll talk with them before they perform and compete, encourage them. But I’ll be in meetings and everything else with our own players getting them ready for practice Tuesday.

“I may go over on Sunday, but that’s more social. Just seeing them to say hello and pump them up a little bit, because I’m absolutely nervous and excited for them. It’s like game day all over again.”

Ohio State’s defensive backs have obviously thrived in those situations over the past few years. And the expectation is Lattimore and Conley will again deliver with every team in the league closely evaluating and weighing the value of spending a high draft pick on the latest models from the cornerback factory Coombs has overseen since joining the Buckeyes under Urban Meyer in 2012.

He’s already produced first-round picks in Bradley Roby and Eli Apple and developed Doran Grant into a fourth-rounder at the position he’s directly responsible for. And throwing in second-round safety Vonn Bell last year and likely first-rounder Malik Hooker this year, the Ohio State secondary as a whole has become something of an NFL pipeline with six early entrants to the draft over the past two seasons alone.

And while all that turnover would seem to increase the degree of difficulty of keeping the roster stocked with elite talent to continue a trend that could produce an eye-opening three first-round cornerbacks selected in just two years, the track record of success is actually helping instead.

“I don’t want to say it’s easy, because to be the best in the country at what you do, to be a first-round pick at what you do, that’s not easy,” Coombs said. “But for obvious reasons, it helps in the recruitment of great players. And if we do a good job recruiting the right kind of kid, I’ve got the best strength coach in the country [Mickey Marotti] working right down the hall from me and the best head coach in the country [Urban Meyer] down the other hall. The combination of those things, for me, makes getting the players ready easier.

“They understand and have watched guys who have achieved that. So they know it is possible, they believe in the system, they believe in the process and, frankly, they’re eager to work really, really hard to make it a reality. The standard is clear, we talk about in our room all the time, and that’s the expectation for every kid that comes to every meeting in the secondary.”

That NFL pitch obviously isn’t a tough sell, and the Buckeyes used it to tremendous success with a historic signing class that included five ESPN 300 defensive backs in addition to the nation’s top junior college cornerback in Kendall Sheffield.

Sheffield enrolled for the second session of the spring semester with the Buckeyes and will be able to participate in spring practice when it opens next week, giving him a solid chance to fill one of those two spots left behind by Lattimore and Conley. But the competition to play in the loaded Ohio State secondary is only getting more fierce, even with all the talent that will be on display in Indianapolis instead of Columbus, Ohio.

“The fact our kids are doing so well and that we win so many games and that they are graduating is huge,” Coombs said. “But at the end of the day, the conversation almost always circles back to, those guys are going to get drafted, you’re going to see them on television, they’re going to be widely regarded as the best in the country at what they do. That really is the standard.

“To be honest with you, I don’t want to recruit a guy that doesn’t want to be a first-round pick. If that’s the standard and that’s what they want to be, there’s a platform here for the elite person to achieve that. That’s what is really exciting about being in my office every day.”

And with the finished product on display elsewhere on Monday, that’s where Coombs will be as he gets to work with the next batch.