Had Shaun Wade not opted back into the 2020 college football season, he likely would've been a surefire first-round pick this week.
But Wade wanted to graduate from Ohio State. And after getting ejected for targeting quarterback Trevor Lawrence in a heartbreaking loss to Clemson in the 2019 college football semifinal, he also wanted another shot to make the national championship game.
So once the Big Ten reversed course and elected to play last September despite the pandemic, Wade returned to Ohio State after initially declaring for the draft.
"The main thing was graduating, chance to win a national championship, be a captain, lead the team," he said in a recent phone interview.
Wade did graduate with a degree in sports industry. He did become a captain and was named the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year. He also did play in a national championship, as Ohio State avenged its loss to Clemson in a semifinal rematch.
But Wade is no longer a projected first-round pick.
And after an up-and-down season transitioning from slot to outside corner while battling various injuries, culminating with a rough performance defending Heisman-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith in the national title game, Wade has become one of this draft's most mercurial prospects.
"Wade just didn't have the cover skills this year playing outside that he did when he was in the slot," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said in a conference call with reporters. "I think he could end up being an inside safety type or a slot corner, where he felt more comfortable rather than being out on an island.
"He's going to be an interesting guy."
Going into the season, Kiper ranked Wade seventh overall on his draft big board. Now, ESPN ranks him as just the No. 16 corner.
Even so, Wade has no regrets about coming back, despite his draft stock tumbling.
"We still got to our goal, that was the main thing, of getting to that championship game," he said. "But everything about last season was weird."
Another reason Wade wanted to come back after a banner 2019 season was to get healthy again. He had offseason surgery to repair a torn abdominal muscle, and over the summer, he injured his knee. Then during the season, he suffered a turf toe injury from which he's still recovering. All of that, along with COVID-19 restrictions, prevented Wade from getting the reps he felt he needed at outside corner replacing Jeff Okudah, the third overall pick in last year's draft.
The turf toe later sapped Wade's speed, never more evident than when he failed to keep up with Smith during Alabama's 52-24 shellacking of the Buckeyes. In that first half alone, Smith had 12 receptions for 215 yards and three touchdowns.
"It shows on film that I was injured," Wade said. "Teams understand that."
Wade, however, proved two weeks ago that he's well on his way to overcoming the injuries. After sitting out Ohio State's first pro day in March due to the turf toe, he worked out for scouts on April 14 along with Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields. Not yet completely 100 percent, Wade still ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds.
- Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) April 14, 2021
That would've been the seventh-fastest time among corners at the 2020 scouting combine (there was no combine this year due to COVID-19).
"You can't heal without resting," said Wade, who noted teams have told him they're intrigued by his versatility to play anywhere in the secondary. "I needed that rest."
Wade is hoping the pro day performance will give his draft stock a late boost and that in the coming days, teams will focus on the fact that he opted in -- to be there for his team even while playing hurt -- when he could've sat out like so many other college stars did last season.
Wade might not be a first-round pick anymore. But he has played like one in the past. And hopes he can be that player soon enough again.
"I know I'll be 100 percent ready for the season for whatever team picks me," he said. "I'm just very excited to find out what city and place I'm going to be in."