With recruiting season at its peak, this is always a time of pining for recruitniks like us at Bucknuts. Each recruit looks like a "must get" that we could easily see in the Scarlet and Gray. Each looks like he is the player Ohio State must have to keep up our winning streak over the Michigan Wolverines.
Since the National Championship game, fretting and worrying in the Buckeye nation seems to have actually increased. So, I thought it might be appropriate to take a look at our recruiting tactics and class thus far.
First, the problems…
- Honesty. For me this is not a problem because it shows integrity, but it will bite you in recruiting from time to time. This seems to be one of those times. Ohio State's current staff (and last one as well) tries to be honest with these young men. They are up front about the positions they see them playing. They are up front about their chances of playing time. They are up front about the need for these kids to get an education and go to classes. They just plain try to make sure there are no misunderstandings so that the young men can come into Ohio State and trust their coaches. The only problem is other coaches and other schools often are not completely honest, and many just flat out lie like a rug. They may tell a kid that he can come in and start right away over their All-American linebacker. They may promise him on their mother's grave that he can pick his position (be it safety, running back, offensive line, etc.), and that they would never, ever consider moving them to another slot. They promise him that they will not recruit another person at his position (which puts the team and program in a bind), all the while talking to another young man and telling him to sign on signing day but keep quiet until then… They just figure that if they can get the young man horned into a scholarship, it would be very difficult for him to transfer. Sadly, they are correct. In at least one instance (and probably multiple instances) this season, a recruit Ohio State wanted was "misled" by a less than honest coach at another school. I would rather Ohio State lose a few here and there instead of selling out the integrity of the school and the coaching staff.
- Negative Tactics. You knew it had to be coming. Ohio State's staff surely points out all of the strong points of Ohio State to the young men. That is their job. I am also fairly certain that Ohio State recruiters and players are not shy about telling kids that they should not go to school X but rather come to OSU. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that because recruiting in any field has to do with selling your product (company, military branch, etc.) as opposed to another choice. It is ethical and even beneficial for the "client" so long as it is not taken too far. However, we are talking about overboard world of college football recruiting, a scene that has a decidedly unethical underside. This year, Ohio State is feeling the brunt of these tactics in some circles. I guarantee that every college competing for Ohio State's recruits are pointing out the depth OSU has. "Lookie here son, over at Ohio State, they have all 5 starting offensive linemen returning next year and two freshmen that played extensively. They get their entire offense and most of their defense back! Now, if you go there you will never get to play in the next 17 years. However, if you come here I will guarantee you that you can come and have a spot… Why, we will even tell our first team all-conference quarterback to switch positions or get used to warming up the bench!"
- Tressel and a National Name. "Jim Tressel? Who is that? Can you spell that out for me? Ohio State head coach huh? You don't say… I never heard of you before," was likely the reply of many recruits this season when the Ohio State coach called. For all that the Ohio High School coaches and Ohio State fans knew about him, the rest of the country only possessed the knowledge that he had been a NCAA I-AA coach with some success that went 7-5 in his first season for the Buckeyes. Recruits locally might be caught up in the promising future of Ohio State because of their own feelings for the Bucks, but young men across the country have no such soft spots in their hearts. They are looking for a big name school if they are a big name talent. They want a talented coaching staff that will help them get to the NFL. They want a coach who will win a national title so they can carry around a ring when they go home on break. Jim now has that status, but he did not earlier this year (when most of the recruits were whittling down their college choices). It hurts when you are trying to get a foot in the door and the other guys recruiting a kid have NCAA division I-A national championships rings like Bowden, Coker, Stoops, etc.
- A Down Year in Ohio. As talented as this year's team was, Ohio State appears to be looking to upgrade their talent level at multiple positions. As such, they need superb athletes who are academically qualified (or at least have a shot at qualifying). Last year, Ohio had a bevy of such players at most every position, but this year it just plain lacked top shelf quality across the board. In past years the Buckeyes might have just settled for a few who were sub-par just to patch the holes in the roster. Not this year, not this staff, and not this head coach. If a young man does not have the talent to play at Ohio State, the staff will not give him an offer and then saddle him with buffing the bench with his rear end for four long years. Good for them. The only problem with this philosophy is in its public relations. You cannot come out and comment on recruits, and you would not want to humiliate the High School and the young man by saying, "This kid has feet of clay. He is fat, slow, and he is no real talent despite what his momma and his High School coach think…" Since the Ohio State coaches are not making public remarks, the only thing fans see is that the "top rated recruits in Ohio" are going elsewhere. In most years that would be a serious issue. This year, it might not be as big of a deal as widely thought.
On the positive side of this coin…
- At Ohio State, it is Not About the Ball. Two years ago at the coaches' luncheon in Chicago, Jim Tressel gave a speech that it is not about the ball at Ohio State. Maybe for some schools and some recruits – it is about the ball. Maybe this curtails their interest in the Buckeyes. Maybe this will cost OSU some prime time athletes in the coming years. However, I see this as a massive positive. Why? What this means to me is that Jim Tressel and his staff may take a few risks, but by and large they are looking for and recruiting athletic young men of class and character. It means that Ohio State's retention and graduation rates should go up. While 4 out of 6 players does not a pattern make, in the last two seasons multiple Buckeyes have shown that it is about more than the ball by staying for their senior seasons. Think about that and consider that the NFL would have paid them hundreds of thousands of dollars if they merely made the roster. As a direct result, the top recruits over the past two years have not been some wide-eyed freshman but the seniors to be – Mike Doss, Darrion Scott, Michael Jenkins, and Will Smith. Maybe the recruiting rankings drop us a few spots because instead of 22 scholarships (or some such number), OSU only offers 19 new players the chance to don the Scarlet and Gray. So what? Would you rather have an unproven freshman with 18 gazillion stars behind his name or a proven commodity in Jenkins/Smith/Scott who is bent upon leaving a legacy in their final season?
- TEAM. If you don't believe in it, then you are not fit for Ohio State. Yeah, all of these young men have an ego (show me a male who does not). Yeah, all of these young men are convinced that they are the best players on the block. Yeah, all of these kids want to see the field. However, Jim Tressel refuses to be bent over a barrel by 18 year olds demanding instant playing time or an offense/defense that is completely tailored around them. If that means that a young man goes to play elsewhere, I actually see that as a positive. Why? They may be talented, but Ohio State has fielded tons of talented teams over the last 3 decades. None of them ever won a national title. If Ohio State is to win another title in the upcoming seasons, I believe their best chance will be to once again play as a team. Selfish players kill team chemistry. There are enough great athletes out there who are unselfish that Ohio State can and will without them. It is great to know that the fans of Ohio State football will be treated to this kind of football instead of the crude, boorish behavior and antics so commonly tolerated (and perhaps even encouraged) elsewhere across the national landscape. Will these young men be perfect? No. Will they even be remotely perfect? No. Will they learn to play as a team or not at all? Yes.
- What Did Ohio State Need? When looking at rating a recruiting class, it is often best to consider the true needs of the athletic program before judging it. This class demanded defensive linemen (see Maupin, Cotton, McClover, and Patterson), one or two linebackers (see Smith), several defensive backs (see Gonzalez, Whitner, Hiley, and Youboty), and a wide receiver (see Jordan). Granted, Ohio State did not clean up on the offensive line side of the equation. Granted, Ohio State could use a fullback. Still, Ohio State filled its two greatest need areas: the defensive line and secondary. Everywhere else the 2003 team should be deep in quantity and quality. Judge not by the rankings but by the needs and the quality of the players in the positions filled.
- It's Not Who You Lose But What You Do with Who You Land. How many "big fish that we cannot possibly live without" has Ohio State lost over the last decade? Yes, some of these young men turned into NFL stars. Yes, some of these young men won some serious hardware. Again though – it is more about who you get and what you do with them. Maybe Donnie Nickey was not the highest rated recruit to ever don the uniform at Ohio State, but he provided 4 solid years at the safety position and serious leadership on a national championship squad. Craig Krenzel was not the highest ranked quarterback coming out of High School and I am guessing that at the time most recruitniks would have gladly swapped him out for Chris Simms… How about now? What about swapping Simms for Krenzel after Craig willed this team to a national title and Chris struggled at Texas all four years in big games? I could go on in this vein for a good while. I could also name off top recruits that never maximized their potential (see Sammy Maldando, Ronald Curry, Ron Powlus, Albert Means, etc.). The bottom line is that most of these kids are phenomenal athletes. If the staff can land motivated young men who have a drive to be the absolute best, then the future of the Buckeyes is more than a little rosy. One last time, say it with me now, "It is not about who we land as much as what we do with them once we land them."
- Trust the Coaches. I know this is really tough for some, but pull out a copy of the roster. Look at it. In just two seasons, Ohio State's coaching staff has landed some seriously underrated gems. I hesitate to call A.J. Hawk an "unknown" because he was a great player in Ohio High School Football - phenomenal. However, he was not a "national" recruit. So what did he do but play the most of any linebacker in last season's ballyhooed freshman class. What about Nick Mangold and Rob Sims? Both of these young men contributed in a large way down the stretch and played in the Fiesta Bowl. How many offensive linemen were ranked ahead of these two? Chris Gamble was passed over by the Big Three in Florida (I believe at least one service had him ranked as only a 2 star player), and yet he is the closest thing to a legitimate 2-way phenomenon in at least 20 years in college football. This staff appears to know exactly what they are doing. Enjoy recruiting, follow recruiting, obsess over recruiting, but at the end of the day – trust the coaching staff because they really seem to know what is what.
- Wait Until Next Year. I know that this is the famous slogan of all losers, but I mean it – wait until next year. Ohio State should finish this recruiting season strong with a top 10 class. That is absolutely great. Maybe not the best, but it certainly is not anything to hang one's head about. Next year could and should be a banner year with a top 5 crew. Ohio's Junior class is absolutely loaded. Couple that with the glow of the national title and the loss of up to 16 starters? Recruits will flock to the Tressel Vessel on signing day 2004. OSU should have right at 20 letters to hand out, but I am guessing that they could hand out 30 and still not sign all of the top athletes who will be interested. With several of the top juniors in Ohio already favoring the Buckeyes, expect OSU to land a top shelf group of athletes. Bank on it.
So, amidst the recent uproar of verbal commitments, decommitments, soft commitments, silent commitments, and refusal to commit until signing day? Don't worry. Be happy. Look for the positives in this class rather than the "big fish that got away."
And if you can't do that for some reason or other?
Just remember, THE Ohio State Buckeyes are NATIONAL CHAMPIONS until at least January 4, 2004. If a young man wants to play elsewhere? Given the direction of the program, the academic focus of the coaches, and the family environment being cultivated by Tressel? In all honesty, it is probably his loss more than Ohio State's.