Doran Grant was wearing a Batman T-shirt when he met with the media a couple of weeks ago, which brought up the question: Who is his Robin?
The assumption was that he would name Eli Apple or Gareon Conley, two of his younger cornerback protégés in the Ohio State defensive backs’ room. Grant thought for a moment, then smiled.
“Oh, coach [Kerry] Coombs,” he said, naming the Buckeyes’ effervescent cornerbacks coach, before darting back into the bat cave, uh, locker room.
Coombs was relayed that conversation this week, and he took it in stride. Sort of.
“He’s the Joker,” the coach said. “We’re going to have an issue.”
— Doran Grant
But not really. Grant is one of the success stories from Urban Meyer’s program which encourages players to blossom not just on the field but also off it, during their three-, four- or five-year stay. Grant has emerged this season as one of the pillars, not only among the defensive backs, but also on the team as a whole.
“I just call it growing up,” the senior cornerback said. “You hit that point where it’s time for you to grow up, where you realize you’re becoming a man. You’re not a boy anymore.
“One you hit that mark, once you realize it, you’ve got to take advantage of it and go forward.”
But Coombs calling him the Joker wasn’t off the mark, either. The way Grant can shift from fun-maker to serious is part of what makes him an effective leader, the coach said.
“I love Doran Grant. I know you know that already,” Coombs said. “But Doran is a very funny guy. He does impressions and impersonations, and he never does them around me because he knows I’m going to rip him. But he has a great sense of humor.”
Turning that off and turning on the serious side — while still having people listen — is what sets him apart.
“The thing I appreciate most about Doran is the way he is able to lead in a very firm manner, and that’s refreshing to see,” Coombs said. “Because in today’s society, pure leadership is something I don’t think is valued a great deal.”
An example came just this week, Coombs said, during a defensive backs meeting.
“I’m having a conversation with one of the other secondary players in the room about a particular technique, and he is mumbling around and he’s not really articulating the answer very well, and Doran says, ‘Come on, man, it’s this and it’s this,’ with firmness,” Coombs said.
“Now, Doran can go in the locker room and yuk it up and hug them up and be that guy, but when it’s time to go, he can look those guys in the eyes like a laser, right now. And the way he’s playing and the way he’s leading is making a real difference in the back end” of the defense.
Playing under Bradley Roby and other upperclassmen the previous few seasons, Grant kept his mouth shut the majority of the time. In the pecking order among college football players, the elders almost always set the tone.
But with an injured Roby unable to play in the Orange Bowl at the end of last season, and with a flagging Ohio State pass defense about to face another onslaught from Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and Clemson, Grant stepped to the front of the room.
“That’s the first time I saw Doran become this huge leader,” safety Tyvis Powell said. “He was talking, telling us how it was time to step up. He had me fired up.
“He had looked to Roby as the leader because he was the No. 1 corner, but with Roby not playing, and with Roby not here anymore [and now with the Denver Broncos], Doran knows that as the No. 1 corner, so many people look up to him. That’s why he has to be the leader.”
Powell said he and Grant are a tag team in pregame pep situations this season because “it’s expected out of him and it’s expected out of me, because we’re the two playmakers back there.”
Timing is the key for that flipping that switch, and Powell said that Grant is good at it.
“He does have a fun side to him, for sure, but it’s not always jokes and giggles,” Powell said. “When it’s time to lock in and focus, he’s like a totally different person.
“It’s like he’s two-faced. He has a funny side and a totally serious side, which I think is a great asset to have.”
Grant said he has long had that capability, crediting his parents, Tonya Grant and Ted Jones, for nurturing it.
“When it comes to the business aspect of playing football, I know when it’s time to focus,” Grant said. “My parents always pushed me in school, I was always a pretty good student and I was always a pretty good athlete growing up, but I was also a playful kid.
“When it came down to school and sports for me, though, that’s when I knew I had to lock in. That’s how I was raised, and as I got older and moved away from home to here, I kept those same morals.”
Even as he kept his views mostly to himself as a younger player at OSU, “I still tried to lead by example by the way I practiced and worked at it. But I knew that as I got older, and especially this year as a senior, I knew I would have to be more verbal with it.”
With it, though, come expectations, the talk-the-talk-then-walk-the-walk aspect that is the only way to maintain command of the room.
“It’s a responsibility; it’s a big responsibility,” Grant said. “But I took on the role, I took on that challenge, and I’m liking it. I also know I have to keep pushing forward and keep getting better, because I’m not all the way there yet myself.”
But he also is having fun. At halftime in the spring game this year, for example, he was pitted against a student and teammate Dontre Wilson in a 40-yard dash to determine the fastest man on campus. Grant won, then did a celebratory back flip almost like a super hero, to the delight of the crowd.
“I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot,” Grant said. “And I did win.”