“That was a huge thing for me,” Decker said of being named a captain. “Coming back for my senior year that was something that I really wanted and it was just important to me personally. It was a goal I had and it’s kind of a testament to the guys that lead me when I was a young guy and showed me how to do things.
“It’s probably one of my favorite accomplishments because it shows that the guys that I am out here playing with have respect for me. Enough to allow me to represent the team and that’s really important to me.”
The fact that the accomplishment comes at Decker’s dream school makes it all the more special, especially since four years ago Decker thought his dreams of playing for Ohio State were over.
Entering his senior season at Vandalia Butler High School, Decker had not been offered by the Buckeyes despite a top 100 national recruiting ranking by Scout.com. Instead the offensive lineman had committed to play for Notre Dame.
Then Urban Meyer was hired and everything changed.
Meyer’s first goal in recruiting was beefing up the offensive line and after watching film on Decker, he extended an offer. It was one the lineman had been waiting on his whole life.
“I didn’t get offered until coach Meyer got here,” Decker said. “Had I had the opportunity to commit here initially I would have. I grew up in Ohio, always wanted to play here but I was not recruited or offered by them.
“Had he not come here I wouldn’t be here. I would be playing for a different team. He gave me an opportunity. He gave me an opportunity and the whole coaching staff gave me an opportunity to come up here and play football and see what I could do. I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.”
Now, four years after reconciling a future without Ohio State, Decker is captaining the defending national champions. Decker is the most experienced member of what is expected to be a dominant offensive line, the unquestioned leader of a veteran group as he enters third year as a starter.
Meyer, who said he began recruiting Decker immediately upon arriving in Columbus, attributes the mental improvement of Decker to the players that came before him.
“What I didn’t see his first year is he’s one of the toughest guys I’ve been around,” Meyer said. “I think that’s a product of, first of all, him. It would be disrespectful to say it wasn’t, but it’s also the culture cultivated by (offensive line coach) Ed Warinner, (Jack) Mewhort, Norwell, Linsley, Marcus Hall, those guys. He’s the product of a culture in a room, and he’s off the charts right now.”
Now Decker, who attributed his growth in the program to assistant athletics director of football sport performance Mickey Marotti in addition to the linemen who came before him, is tasked with cultivating that culture in the young offensive lineman on the roster.
Redshirt junior Pat Elflein, a fellow leader along the line and Decker’s roommate, said that is the area that he has seen improve the most in his time at Ohio State.
“Leadership for sure, he’s a great leader,” Elflein said of where the senior has improved. “His knowledge of the game and just being efficient with his footwork and stuff like that.”
That knowledge of the game and dedication to improvement is what has turned Decker from a promising high school recruit into a surefire NFL prospect, one of the country’s Top 5 seniors according to NFL.com. But Decker’s interests extend beyond football.
Decker has an affinity for tattoos; he has an abundance of them taking up a good portion of each arm and each with their own meaning. The lineman also has an interest in the military. Two of his older brothers have served and Decker has said that’s likely the route he would have pursued had he not played college football. Add in his love of animals and dedication to his animal science degree and it’s enough to prove Decker is a well-rounded individual, one not defined solely by football as many future NFL players are.
As part of his major and Meyer’s encouragement that his players get real-world experience, Decker has spent the last two summers interning at the Columbus Zoo. The senior relished the experience, posting a video to his Instagram account this summer of tiger cubs crawling all over him.
“I thought it was really cool, we had Amur tigers,” he said. “I just thought it was really cool to have an endangered species, to be able to work hands on with something like that. Such rare things that you don’t get to see in the wild and every day I get to go in the cage with them.”
Decker said a career working with animals remains interesting to him, though he hopes that it would come after a long football career.
It seems an NFL career is all but a sure thing for the 6-8, 315 pound left tackle. He has the prototypical size for the position and above-average footwork that has him projected as a first-round pick next spring. Just as important, he has the experience and the attitude to back it all up.
“He knows he is better than his opponents and he has that confidence,” left guard Billy Price said. “Being a three-year starter here, he kind of has that confidence, that swagger about him. He knows how to play, he practices like a pro. For him it’s just kind of to continue to work on the little things for him to try to get better.”
Decker, or TD as he is known to most of his teammates, relishes the work, he said. His goal for his senior season is improvement, not just for himself but for the entire team and for the unit he leads. If the NFL senses complacency in Decker or a stagnation of development, opinions of him by professional scouts will sour. Worse yet, the lineman said it will send a bad message to his line mates and the entire 2015 Ohio State team that is working to battle complacency.
Still, after 29 consecutive starts and a national championship it would seem there is little left to prove. Decker certainly could have left school after guiding the Buckeyes to the first ever College Football Playoff National Championship. That, however, would end Decker’s time with his close friends and teammates, at the very least put his degree on hold and conclude his tenure as a Buckeye.
After just one conversation Decker knew he wasn’t ready to close that chapter of his life.
“I talked to my dad briefly, one conversation and that was about it,” Decker said of forgoing his senior season. “I grew up in Ohio, always wanted to play for Ohio State. I don’t know why I would leave something like that. Once I leave I can’t come back.”
And to think, four years ago it seemed he would never arrive.