OSU Sees Bright Future In Sunshine State

Ohio State was expected to clean up in Florida once former Gators coach Urban Meyer arrived, but the Buckeyes snagged just four Sunshine State prospects in Meyer's first three recruiting classes. Two of the first three members of OSU's class of 2015 are from Florida, and the Buckeyes are pursuing several bigger fish. BSB examines Ohio State's renewed success in Florida and what's to come.

The voice of Ohio State cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs filled the air as he spoke to a group of official visitors in December. The recruiting cycle was just two months away from coming to a close and a handful of coveted prospects from around the country were on hand in Columbus to hear the Buckeyes' best pitch.

In a pitch that has now become famous thanks to YouTube video uploads from the father of sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott, Coombs enthusiastically ranted for six minutes in front of a gray curtain dotted with Ohio State logos. He spoke of the familial bond between both players and coaches and reiterated his pride in the recent 24-game win streak that was only outdistanced by a thirst to better it.

The oratory wonder was delivered without notes (or breaths of air) and was so filled with optimism that it could have driven even the most positive person to suspicion or cynicism. But there was a moment in the beginning that was unquestionably, unequivocally true, stealthily dropped in for a brief moment between fawning sentences.

"We are going to recruit the 25 best football players in America," Coombs told the players and their family members. "We will go to any corner of this country to find those men."

Ohio State has shown its ability to pull recruits from just about anywhere in the country. The Buckeyes hauled in players from 11 states other than Ohio in 2014, and that trend figures to continue into the future. On the weekend of Feb. 28, Scottsdale (Ariz.) Saguaro four-star wide receiver Christian Kirk, the fourth-rated wideout in the 2015 class, was in Columbus to visit the Buckeyes, showing that OSU coach Urban Meyer could even work his magic out west.

Of all the corners of the country, though, the Buckeyes have shown a particularly keen interest in one – the talent-rich state of Florida, and more specifically, the region of South Florida that includes recruiting hotbeds like Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

Heading into the Miami metropolitan area to recruit is by no means an easy task. For a program like Ohio State, the cutthroat world of the Gold Coast lends itself to much more uncertainty than the Midwest.

"In the South, you'll see kids take visits the last weekend of the recruiting cycle and end up committing to a school they didn't even have an offer from," BuckeyeSports.com recruiting analyst Bill Greene said. "I don't know if things are done behind the scenes or if the kid just doesn't publish it, but a lot of weird things happen in the last weekend down there, more so than the Midwest. I think Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame pretty much know what their class is going to look like in the final days."

Still, the reward for venturing down to the southernmost points of Florida is often worth the risk. The sheer talent is among the best the country has to offer for football, and the volume of players who are considered D-1 prospects dwarfs that of most other regions.

Ohio is considered to produce some of the best high school football talent nationally and has backed that up with 16 players in the 2015 Scout 300. Still, that's less than half the total of Florida, which currently has 33 players listed among the 300 best – a portion that accounts for 11 percent of a 50-state puzzle.

The University of Miami famously capitalized on its location by outlining a region stretching from Miami to Tampa and focusing on persuading those players to stay home. After winning less than 50 percent of its games in the 1970s, the Hurricanes combined for five national championships under five different coaches – Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson, Butch Davis and Larry Coker – who led the program from 1979-2006.

Why are high schoolers from that area so successful? Johnnie Dixon, a 2014 four-star wide receiver from Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) Dwyer who enrolled early at Ohio State, has his own theory.

"We've got some great players down there, and all of them have a story behind why they're playing," Dixon told BuckeyeSports.com. "They're all driven by something that makes them want to play."

A Renewed Push

The Buckeyes are no stranger to south Florida. From the 1988 season to present, Ohio State has signed 50 prospects from Florida. Many of those recruits haven't worked out – one of the four players from Sarasota in the 1989 and 1990 classes never enrolled, while another was an academic casualty later in his career. The Buckeyes have also seen their share of transfers from Sunshine State products, with seven of those 50 voluntarily choosing to end their collegiate careers elsewhere.

Still Ohio State has its share of success stories, too. Wide receiver Santonio Holmes, defensive back Chris Gamble, defensive lineman Ryan Pickett and wide receiver Michael Jenkins have all gone on to productive careers in the NFL.

The success that began under Cooper, who was the first OSU coach to carve out a national recruiting strategy instead of staying primarily in Ohio, continued with his replacement Jim Tressel in the 2000s. In the 12 classes spanning from 2000-2011, the Buckeyes inked at least two Florida products in every year except 2003 and 2005.

So when Urban Meyer showed up to coach the Buckeyes in time to recruit for the final few months of the 2012 class, it seemed like a given that the man who won two national championships at Florida would make it a point to poach his old stomping grounds.

Instead, his first three classes didn't appear to follow a blueprint that singled out Florida in any special way. Ohio State signed wide receiver Ricquan Southward in 2012, wide receiver James Clark and defensive end Joey Bosa in 2013 and then Dixon in 2014. While four players in three years is a decent total, it's still behind the pace of both Cooper and Tressel.

That trio of players from Meyer's first two classes has been a mixed bag thus far. Southward has already transferred, and Clark broke his ankle in the 76-0 win against Florida A&M and was able to take a medical redshirt. However, Joey Bosa, who came from the fabled St. Thomas Aquinas program that includes former Buckeye and NFL Hall of Famer Cris Carter on its staff, earned freshman All-American honors after a season that included 13.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks for 58 yards along with a fumble recovery.

"That's the only reason why you leave Florida," Carter said in an interview following an Orange Bowl practice that he attended. "You don't really leave for any other reason unless you can make an impact on a big program like Ohio State. You don't leave Miami, Florida State… you just don't do that."

There are signs that Ohio State is poised for more success down south in 2015, beginning with the obvious fact that two of its three current commits – Cocoa three-star cornerback Jamel Dean and Jacksonville Trinity Christian three-star safety Ben Edwards – hail from Florida.

"The activity in Florida has ramped up 500 percent over what it's been the past couple of years," BuckeyeSports.com recruiting analyst Bill Greene said. "I don't know why or what would have changed, but they're being extremely aggressive right now in Florida."

According to the Scout.com recruiting database, Ohio State has offered 125 prospects in the class of 2015 as of March 1. Of those 125 players, a whopping 36 – more than 25 percent – are from Florida, while just eight are in-state kids. Much of that is due to the work of wide receivers coach Zach Smith, who coached with Meyer at Florida, and defensive coordinator Luke Fickell.

"It seems like they've shifted strategy because it felt like they weren't doing much in Florida the past couple years," Greene said. "Now, all of a sudden, they're full bore right now. It's back to the way it was under Tressel. They're being very aggressive right now. Zach Smith and Luke Fickell have both been down there, and they've probably offered more kids during one week this January than they have in the past couple years."

Still, sheer numbers don't always tell the story when it comes to recruiting. The offer list is impressive, but Scout.com recruiting analyst Derek Young argued that it doesn't necessarily correlate to commitments. Many of the players are three-stars that wouldn't be a lock for OSU to take over some four-star in-state prospects who have yet to receive an offer.

"You can't really look at it just by offers, because Ohio State will probably offer around 200 kids in the 2015 class," Young said. "You have to look at how hard they're pursuing kids or whether they'd take them right away. I look less at the offers and more towards how they go about recruiting, and there are a few kids I'm pretty sure they're going to get."

How they go about recruiting is certainly a critical piece of the puzzle in looking at how the Buckeyes attack Florida. Ohio State director of player personnel Mark Pantoni said that while the Buckeyes do their best in areas outside of Ohio, they're often forced to rely on pre-existing connections in order to develop meaningful relationships that lead to official visits and, ultimately, commitments.

Factoring in the distance, the amount of elite schools that are closer to Florida than Ohio State and one of the worst winters in recent memory, it's not exactly a shoo-in for OSU to pluck kids away from the Sunshine State.

"I'm probably the pessimist of the staff," Pantoni said. "To say we recruit the state of Texas is false. To say we recruit the state of Florida is false. We have to make sure there's some sort of tie, otherwise our percentage of getting them is probably very low. With Johnnie, his high school coach, we had signed four players at Florida and we have a great relationship. With Raekwon (McMillan), two of his high school coaches are from Ohio. There's connections there. To say we're going to get a kid from Fort Lauderdale with no connections there, it's very hard because you have to beat the three in-state schools, Georgia, Alabama. And that's a long way and it gets cold here so..."

Of course, Ohio State's staff has assembled its fair share of connections in Florida, something that should set up the Buckeyes for long-term success. In fact, OSU's recruiting infrastructure in Florida is better than the biggest and most ruthlessly efficient recruiting machine in the country – Nick Saban's Alabama program.

Alabama has had its pick of players from around the country, but despite its southern location and stature as the most dominant program of the past five years, it hasn't always produced excellence in Florida.

"That's really one frontier that Alabama hasn't conquered," TideSports.com recruiting analyst John Garcia Jr. said. "They've done well there randomly but they haven't locked it down and plucked every kid they wanted. I think with Ohio State, you could make the argument that they've already made better inroads in the state of Florida with their current regime than Alabama has with their staff."

Mr. Smith Goes To Florida

One overlooked aspect of the hiring of Larry Johnson Sr. as defensive line coach is the ripple effect it had on OSU's recruiting strategy. Smith and Johnson went up against each other in the mid-Atlantic, and that spot went to the longtime Penn State assistant when he moved to Columbus.

Johnson's arrival freed up Smith to focus on Florida, an area that the wide receivers coach couldn't pursue as aggressively while focusing on his primary territory of Virginia and the surrounding region. Even while splitting time, he showed off what he could do in Florida by reeling in Dixon, who announced his decision on Dec. 17. Of all the players who ended up in the 2014 class, Pantoni said that Dixon was the one whose odds of ending up in Columbus looked bleakest at the start of his commitment.

"Johnnie Dixon would probably be the one just because being in Florida and the distance factor and having Miami, Florida, Florida State and Alabama in after him, but Zach Smith did an incredible job with him," Pantoni said. "The relationship that I had and Coach Meyer had with his high school coach helped us a little bit there as well, but at the end of the day, Zach Smith got that one."

Dixon told BSB that what sold him on Ohio State was the relationship that he gained with Smith. After they first starting communicating, he and Smith developed a level of trust that strengthened enough to convince him to leave south Florida.

"Zach being a young guy, he like myself understands social media," Pantoni said. "He's really good at relating to kids. Being down there at Florida for a long time, that's what you need – a guy who can relate to the kids down there and the swag factor and all that, so he'll be great down there."

He'll be tasked with guiding in one of the crown jewels of the 2015 class – Plantation (Fla.) American Heritage five-star quarterback and No. 12 overall prospect Torrance Gibson – to Columbus. One year after whiffing on its first four quarterback choices, OSU has targeted Gibson as one of its highest priorities, if not the highest.

The 2015 class is another typically successful class in Florida, beginning with the loaded south Florida area and extending all the way up to Jacksonville thanks to a star-studded roster at Trinity Christian.

"There's a lot of guys that we like down there," Smith said. "I can't compare it to years past, I really don't know that, but we're trying to recruit the best players in the country. We want to really recruit the state of Ohio because we love Ohio, we love the coaches here, the players here, but at the end of the day we need the best quarterback in the country, the best receiver in the country and we're going to get them wherever they are."

In order to do so, Ohio State will send in the man named Big Ten recruiter of the year for the 2014 class by both Scout and Rivals.com.

"Zach Smith is going to be a reason that they may want to emphasize south Florida a little bit more, because he's one of the best recruiters," Young said. "When you put him in south Florida, that tells you that's an area that they want to hit harder in the next few years."

As Coombs said in December, Ohio State is chasing the 25 best prospects in the country. There's no better place to start the race than south Florida.

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