Look for Ohio State's Marshon Lattimore to be first corner selected in NFL draft

Northwestern Ohio St Football
Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore tackles Northwestern running back Garrett Dickerson last season.

BOTH THE NFL Network's Mike Mayock and ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. have said they see as many as 18 or 19 defensive backs worthy of being drafted this year in the first couple of rounds.

Out of that exceptionally large group, Ohio State corner Marshon Lattimore is the guy most experts expect to be the first off the board - quite an honor in what is considered a banner year for defensive backs, and especially for corners.

In fact, it's amazing, when you consider that Lattimore is a one-year college starter whose career was drifting in limbo as recently as a year ago, because of a succession of hamstring problems.

Ohio State safety Malik Hooker, also a prospective top 10 draft prospect this year, was asked at the NFL Scouting Combine why he thinks Lattimore (6-feet, 193) ranks at the top.

"I would say his athleticism. He's so fluid in all his movements. He's got great recovery speed," Hooker said. "Able to press, able to play off. He's able to do a little bit of everything. He can come up in the run game and hit, as well. I think there's nothing you can put your finger on and say, 'He can't do this better than anyone in the draft.' "

Kerry Coombs, who coaches cornerbacks at Ohio State, said the answer is "incredible athletic gifts. Very fast and very explosive. He's a big corner, by any standard. Those are qualities that are very hard to find. And then I think his innate ability to make plays, both on the ball and in coverage, is extraordinary . . . A great skill set for what the NFL is looking for, and that's the ability to line up in press coverage, play man-to-man, and deny your man the ball."

At the combine, Lattimore was that rare top-echelon prospect who didn't seem bored or bothered by all the drills and questions.

"It's just a blessing, being in the position I'm in today, because I didn't even know if I was going to be healthy enough to play or not," he said.

Lattimore said there was definitely a common thread to his combine interviews.

"Really, what it was, was my hamstrings, they wanted to know about my hamstrings," he said.

Lattimore's hamstring problems date back to his high school days in Cleveland. He was a heralded recruit who underwent surgery as a college freshman to try and get past the issue, but was still bothered by it in 2015, and played in only seven games. Buckeyes strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti then made Lattimore his special project; Lattimore and Marotti were determined to not let Lattimore's talent go to waste.

"(Lattimore) did every single thing necessary to get his legs healthy and right, so that he was able to play at the level he played at this year," Coombs said. "Mickey Marotti spent a lot of time analyzing everything about Marshon's muscles and the way he used them, trying to figure out what was and is the muscle structure and strength that was creating stress on his hamstring. And he did - he identified it.

"Once he figured out we could strengthen (Lattimore's) glutes and take some of the load off his hamstrings, for the way he runs, it's made all the difference in the world. Marshon and Mickey worked really hard on that part of his body, to balance out his muscle structure. Once that was done, man, he just took off."

Lattimore also took a yoga class that he said helped. He intercepted four passes, earned rave reviews, and entered the draft as a redshirt sophomore.

"All year, you looked at Ohio State and he just jumped out at you," Kiper said on a predraft conference call. "He was the guy who was a lockdown corner. He looked like he could be Darrelle Revis, he looked like he could be that cornerback that you will take in the top 10, who will be spectacular, be one of the best cover men in the NFL.

"You don't have to worry about him being 'handsy' and grabbing and holding. He can actually cover . . . What worked in college is going to result in penalties galore in the NFL for some of these guys . . . On ability, and the way he performed on tape, he's as good as any defensive player in this draft, after (consensus No. 1 overall defensive end Myles Garrett, from Texas A&M)."

Cornerback is the most glaring Eagles need, but the Birds almost certainly would need to trade up from 14th overall to net Lattimore. In a cornerback-rich draft, they seem unlikely to part with the resources necessary to make such a move.

Even though Lattimore ran a stellar 4.36 40 at the combine, he pulled up near the end, and it was widely assumed he had again tweaked a hammy. Lattimore vigorously disputed this, on social media and at Ohio State's pro day. He said he'd suffered a minor hip flexor strain, and eased up out of caution.

"That's why I tweeted (about the injury). Yeah, I wanted to clear it up. It is what it is . . . Man, there's going to be people that try to bring you down. They didn't even know what was going on. I didn't grab my hamstring or anything like that, they just thought it was my hamstring," he said. Lattimore added that he went through pro day drills, after an excellent combine performance, "to show them I'm not injured."

Lattimore said throughout his struggles, he retained "the confidence that I'm one of the best, but I had to get healthy enough to show that I'm one of the best, and that's what I did this year.

"It was frustrating. But all the coaches were telling me I had a bright future, so stick with it. I talked to my parents a lot about it. They always keep me up, make me laugh about it, get me off of being hurt or injured or whatever."

Coombs recalled his own "hold-your-breath mindset" toward Lattimore during 2016 spring practice, which slowly changed as the season approached. "Once I hit two-a-days, I felt really, really good about where he was," Coombs said.

It helped that during his injury absences, Lattimore stayed plugged in to meetings and film study, Coombs said. Once he was finally healthy, there was no learning curve, he was ready to start and to excel.

"He's quiet, but he has a very, very wry sense of humor," Coombs said. "He's still on our (defensive backs') group text, and he was poking fun at those guys today. He has a very sharp wit. He enjoys his teammates, loves being in the locker room. He loves the game of football; I think it does, to a very large extent, identify who he is.

"I think he is very, very passionate about being the best in the world at what he does. I think he's still got things to prove to a lot of folks, and I think he's really excited about the opportunity to do that on the biggest stage."

bowenl@phillynews.com

@LesBowen

Blog: philly.com/Eaglesblog

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