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April 19, 2006

Ohio State turns the corner with tradition

Shawn Springs remembers the conversation as if it took place 15 minutes ago instead of almost 15 years ago.

Springs was talking about his dreams of becoming the next Bo Jackson when his father pointed to Deion Sanders on a television screen.

"That's going to be you," Ron Springs told his son.

Forget about the 1,166 rushing yards that Ron Springs gained in 1977 while helping Ohio State advance to the Sugar Bowl. That conversation with his son represents Springs' biggest contribution to his alma mater.

"He said you're going to go up there and change the program," Shawn Springs recalled.

And that's exactly what happened.

Shawn Springs played cornerback at Ohio State well enough that the Seattle Seahawks selected him with the third overall pick in the 1997 NFL Draft. He started a tradition that has helped make Ohio State the top producer of NFL cornerbacks.

Florida State may be better known as "Cornerback U," but most of their NFL corners either have just started their careers (Bryant McFadden) or are approaching retirement (Sanders, Terrell Buckley). Ohio State's corners are all in their primes.

Springs, Nate Clements, Chris Gamble and Antoine Winfield all owned starting jobs in the NFL last season. Ashton Youboty should join them next season after getting selected in the first two rounds of the upcoming NFL Draft.

Not bad for a school in the Big Ten, which once had a reputation for grind-it-out offenses that ignored the passing game.

Position: Cornerback
School that rules: Ohio State (Nate Clements, Chris Gamble, Central McCellion, David Mitchell, Ahmed Plummer, Derek Ross, Shawn Springs, Antoine Winfield).
Coming attractions: Ashton Youboty.
Runners-up: Florida State (Terrell Buckley, LeRoy Butler, Tay Cody, Mario Edwards, Corey Fuller, Bryant McFadden, Samari Rolle, Deion Sanders), LSU (Fred Booker, Travis Daniels, Randall Gay, Tory James, Denard Walker, Corey Webster), Miami (Robert Bailey, Delvin Brown, Phillip Buchanon, Markese Fitzgerald, Alfonso Marshall, Ryan McNeil, Leonard Myers, Antrel Rolle, Mike Rumph, Duane Starks), Nebraska (Michael Booker, Ralph Brown, Keyuo Craver, DeJuan Groce, Eric Warfield, Fabian Washington, Tyrone Williams), N.C. State (Ricky Bell, Dovonte Edwards, Lloyd Harrison, Lamont Reid, Tony Scott, Dewayne Washington, Brian Williams), South Carolina (Sheldon Brown, Terry Cousin, DeAndre Eiland, Andre Goodman, Ray Green, Kevin House, Dunta Robinson), Southern Cal (Chris Cash, Brian Kelly, Daylon McCutcheon, Will Poole, Kris Richard, Jason Sehorn).
Sleeper school: Cincinnati. Tampa Bay's Blue Adams, New England's Artrell Hawkins, Chicago's Daven Holly, Baltimore's Zach Norton and Arizona's Robert Tate all are former Bearcats.
Why Ohio State is Cornerback U: Florida State deservedly has earned a reputation as Cornerback U over the last two decades, but a closer look gives Ohio State the nod. While the majority of Florida State's elite cornerbacks (Sanders, Butler, Buckley) are retired or at the tail ends of their careers, Ohio State's top NFL corners are still in their primes. Springs and Clements are former Pro Bowl selections. Gamble, who has established himself as one of the game's top cornerbacks, should receive his own invitation to Hawaii soon enough. Winfield also has been a consistent starter since beginning his pro career in 1999. Florida State also continues to produce top-flight players at this position, as potential first-round pick Antonio Cromartie will team up with McFadden to give the Seminoles two outstanding young cover corners in the league. Miami actually has produced the most NFL cornerbacks in recent years, including former first-round picks Buchanon, Rolle and Rumph. But many of the former Hurricanes on this list are no longer in the league.
Ohio State's list of stalwart cornerbacks proves that's no longer the case.

"I don't think there's any question," Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said. "All you've got to do is look at the league stats with passing and throwing the football. You're facing more passing teams with Northwestern, Purdue and Indiana now. It seems everybody's spreading their offense out and throwing the ball more.''

The emergence of Ohio State cornerbacks began at the same time the school began producing star wide receivers.

Springs said he improved himself by guarding future NFL stars Joey Galloway and Terry Glenn. Winfield and former NFL cornerback Ahmed Plummer played for Ohio State at the same time as former Pro Bowl receiver David Boston.

"Shawn was a great cover corner," said John Cooper, the Ohio State head coach from 1988-2000. "We put him on the best wide receiver, and he'd just take him out of their game plan. Shawn could play the run too, but he was a true cover corner.

"Antoine Winfield was more of a complete player. He had what I call 'it.' He had the best instincts of any player I've coached. He literally would play better than you coached."

Springs, now with the Washington Redskins, is a nine-year NFL veteran and former Pro Bowl selection. Winfield, who won the Jim Thorpe Award that goes to the nation's top collegiate defensive back, collected a team-high 98 tackles for the Minnesota Vikings last season.

Winfield began his career in Buffalo, where he teamed up with Clements to give the Bills two starting cornerbacks from Ohio State. Clements remains in Buffalo and has recorded six interceptions in two of his five NFL seasons.

Gamble could end up as the best former Ohio State cornerback yet. The Carolina Panthers star picked off 13 passes in his first two seasons as a pro.

Ohio State's coaching staff has featured almost as much star power as the secondary. Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith, Miami head coach Larry Coker, Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta and Cleveland Browns secondary coach Mel Tucker all have coached Ohio State's defensive backs over the last dozen years.

But the most valuable coach of them all just might have been Springs' father.

Ron Springs parlayed his productivity at Ohio State into an eight-year NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Along the way, he suffered enough aches and pains to realize he didn't want his child to follow a similar path.

That's why he taught his son how to play cornerback. Shawn Springs remembers how his dad told him he had enough talent and speed to have a 15-year career as an NFL cornerback.

"Now I'm in my 10th year, I make a lot of money, and I can still walk without (limping)," Shawn Springs said. "He was a visionary."

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