The players who donned the scarlet and gray in that era may have come from the same area, but if they got to know each other before enrolling, it almost certainly came on the football field. With no Internet, no cell phones and few, if any, prospects committed before the final months of the recruiting cycle, the odds were against players developing relationships before showing up for school.
That is no longer the case. With limitless technology accounting for more forms of communication than can possibly be kept track of, players under head coach Urban Meyer are expected to enroll with at least a cursory amount of camaraderie between them.
“By the time they get into school, the ideal goal is for the class to already be tight and building relationships from group texts and playing in all-star games together and stuff like that,” Ohio State director of player personnel Mark Pantoni told BuckeyeSports.com. “When they get here, it all starts with power of the unit and each position group jelling together, which Coach Meyer ultimately develops into chemistry of the whole team.”
Looking at the Ohio State classes from recent years, it’s hard to imagine a group having more of a challenge in that regard than this one. The class included players from South Dakota, Utah and Arkansas – believed to be the first time Ohio State has had a scholarship player from each of those states – and came together late. The class of 2016 already has 16 commitments, but their predecessors didn’t pick up No. 16 until late October.
Furthermore, it swelled into one of the nation’s biggest classes and was turbulent at times. Nearly half of the class was at one point committed to a different school, and the Buckeyes lost a couple of prospects to decommitments. On the eve of National Signing Day, Meyer spent a sleepless night trying to make sure five players either stuck with or joined the class.
“It was kind of hard for us,” offensive lineman Matthew Burrell said. “We had the Florida boys, different guys from around the country.”
There are a number of ways the staff worked to get players to develop that chemistry. One of the most effective methods came simply from putting them in the same place. The players who were uncommitted during the fall took their official visits as their schedule permitted, but the prospects who were already committed visited Ohio Stadium early and often (and also took their official visits the same weekend). There were also events like Friday Night Lights, where commits spent plenty of time together and just as much time working to recruit players who would ultimately sign with Ohio State.
“Friday Night Lights was definitely cool,” linebacker Justin Hilliard said. “I got to hang out with recruits and met a lot of fans. I did a little recruiting at first and hung out with Torrance Gibson. For me, it was just a night to hang out with the 2015 class and build relationships with them.”
But with signees from 11 states, most of which aren’t in the Midwest, spending a lot of time together in person just isn’t realistic. For that, the players turned to group text.
“We have a big group message going with all the commits,” South Dakota native Grant Schmidt said last fall, noting that it was usually Hilliard who made a new group text when the Buckeyes gained a new commitment. “We talk every now and then about whether we’re going to go on visits. We all talk to each other, especially when someone commits. It’s been pretty cool. I like pretty much all of those guys. They all love football, so we all have something in common.”
That development pleased the Ohio State staff, which wants to see its recruits talking with each other as much as possible so the early months of their campus life can be spent getting to work instead of acclimating to a group of strangers.
“We encourage stuff like the group text because we want them to be a tight-knit group on day one when they step foot on campus,” Pantoni said. “We don’t want them to be saying, ‘Who is this guy?’ We want these guys to feel like they’ve known each other for months, and ultimately that’s what helps build the brotherhood.”
With a dozen players, including the last eight to commit, having at one point been committed to a different school, getting used to a new set of teammates can pose a challenge. To combat the newness of it all, multiple players said they approached it with the understanding that they were joining a group of players with similar goals to their own.
“In life you’re going to meet new people and see new places and it teaches you how to adapt,” said Valdosta, Ga., native Joshua Norwood, who was at one point committed to Cincinnati. “It’s a bunch of great players. It’s not like you’re going in there hanging with just anybody. It’s a bunch of other people that have the same mind-set as you. We understand each other.”
Now, as the players enter a college classroom for the first time and prepare to set foot in strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti’s battleground, they’re close enough to be able to help each other through what is expected to be one of the most trying experiences of their lives.
“We always make sure everyone’s OK and, in the end, that’s how we’re going to get through this hell of a summer that we’re going to have,” Burrell said. “It’s about being together. It’s a big deal for me to have a good, close class.
“I’m fired up about it.”