As Cornell went to name his choice, Hilliard began nodding his head and then broke out into applause when the St. Paul (Minn.) Cretin-Derham Hall defensive end named the Buckeyes his college choice.
It was no surprise that Cornell chose to join Hilliard in Columbus. The two have been friends since meeting on a trip to Iowa as sophomores and repeatedly dropped hints about playing together after reconnecting at the Nike Football Training Camp event in Columbus on June 1.
What might surprise some Buckeye fans, though, is that Cornell was the half of the duo who was firmer in his convictions. As Hilliard agonized over his tough decision, Cornell made sure that Ohio State remained his choice.
“I think toward the end I was the one pushing him towards Ohio State,” Cornell told BuckeyeSports.com. “He was having thoughts of Notre Dame, and I gave him a little bump towards Ohio State that final week.”
Of course, Cornell’s route to Columbus began when it was announced that Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr. would be replacing Mike Vrabel at the same position with the Buckeyes. Ohio State was pursuing him long before then, but his connection with Johnson is what made the Buckeyes contenders in his recruiting battle.
“Vrabel was on him, but I really felt like Ohio State was not as high on his list until Larry Johnson came along, and he readily admits that,” Scout.com recruiting analyst Allen Trieu told BuckeyeSports.com. “He had a good relationship with Coach Johnson when he was at Penn State, and I really feel like that sealed the deal for the Buckeyes. Had the coaching change not happened, I don’t think Ohio State would have been a big player in his recruitment.”
Cornell readily acknowledges the connection he has with the long-tenured assistant. At the Sound Mind Sound Body camp in Detroit in June, Cornell got a chance to be coached by Johnson. In between drills, the duo would share their thoughts, and they also spent some time talking at the end of the first day.
Johnson helped Ohio State’s cause by making Cornell one of his biggest priorities after exchanging his blue and white for scarlet and gray.
“I think it was a big impact for me because Coach Johnson was recruiting me at Penn State, and when he moved to Ohio State I was one of the first players he called to start recruiting again,” Cornell said. “I consider Coach Johnson to be a father figure, and I really look up to him. He’s been in college football for 19 years and sent so many people to the NFL, and he has a great résumé.”
With the hashtag #Elite15 used to describe this class, Cornell is the caliber of recruit the Buckeyes hoped to pull in. He first turned heads on the recruiting circuit when he earned a starting spot as a sophomore at his prestigious high school. As Cretin-Derham Hall head coach Mike Scanlan told BuckeyeSports.com, not even Minnesota Twins All-Star Joe Mauer, who was named the Gatorade National Player of the Year as a senior quarterback for the Raiders, started as a sophomore.
The rarity of the situation was very much appreciated by Cornell, who amassed 14 sacks as a sophomore in 2012.
“At Cretin-Derham Hall, you just don’t play your freshman and sophomore years because there’s so many great players ahead of you,” he said. “When I was starting as a sophomore, I had a smile on my face every game I played because I knew I was blessed, man. Everything I had coming for me was because of God and my parents.”
It didn’t take Cornell long to introduce himself. Even at a school like Cretin-Derham Hall, which has produced Scout.com class of 2010 No. 1 overall prospect Seantrel Henderson in addition to a host of other NFL players, Scanlan said that Cornell is one of the best linemen to ever play at the school.
One of Cornell’s most impressive plays as a high schooler came in a scrimmage and left Scanlan quite confident in his young prospect’s ability to play at the next level.
“I have a memory of him beating the running back to get to the quarterback and holding them by their helmets like it was a Three Stooges movie,” Scanlan said. “He’s got them in a double headlock. And yeah, it was a scrimmage and it wasn’t against guys who are going to Ohio State, but that’s one that sticks in my mind. He went by people like they were standing still.”
For all of his dominating plays on the field, though, Cornell prefers to draw far less attention off it.
“He’s a pretty soft-spoken and quiet kid,” Scanlan said. “He’s not wandering around through the student body with a sign that says ‘look at me’ taped to his back. He’s a pretty low-key guy, and I like that about him.”
Over the past year, Cornell has bulked up enough that recruiting experts began to question whether he might have to move inside to defensive tackle. Cornell said that he still views himself as a defensive end and has the speed to prove it, citing the fact that he ran a 4.69 40-yard dash at Nike’s The Opening camp in July.
Cornell said that he gained the weight – Scout lists him at 263 pounds – to get to a more college-ready size and noted that Ohio State still plans to use him as a defensive end.
He’ll get a chance to see Johnson and his future teammates quite a few times this season. Because Cornell’s mom works for Delta, he flies for free. With that option available, he plans on making the trip to Columbus for every home game this season, beginning with Ohio State’s high-profile showdown against Virginia Tech on Sept. 6.
The four-star defensive end also has his scholarship guaranteed now after signing a midyear enrollment agreement that forces Ohio State to honor his scholarship offer as an early enrollee and allows the player and school unlimited communication. He can still choose to go elsewhere, but Cornell said no school in the country has been able to match what the Buckeyes have to offer.
“They have great football, great academics and great fans at Ohio State – great coaches, too, so you can’t go wrong,” he said. “You’ve got Urban Meyer and Larry Johnson, two of the top coaches in the country. You’ve got great academics as well as one of the biggest alumni bases in the country.”
On top of that, opposing schools have one less avenue to negatively recruit, as Cornell is the rare Ohio State commit to hail from an area with worse winters than Columbus. He laughed at the thought of Ohio winters being a deterrent to his commitment.
“When you live in Minnesota, you just get used to it,” he said. “I wear short sleeves in the winter sometimes. In football season, I don’t wear any sleeves. We’ve grown up with it for so long that we’re just used to it.”