When the Michigan Wolverines met the Ohio State Buckeyes in 1950, a blizzard of epic proportion left both teams struggling. Footage courtesy OSU.
Detroit Free Press
When 2021 quarterback recruit Kyle McCord visited Columbus, Ohio, in April 2019, he met with Ohio State QB Dwyane Haskins just before the NFL draft.
Haskins, then the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, had thrown for more than 4,800 yards and 50 touchdowns, been named the Rose Bowl MVP and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting.
What Haskins accomplished is everything McCord dreams of doing, and his encounter with Haskins was enough to spur his commitment to Ohio State football two weeks later.
“Seeing what Coach (Ryan) Day did with Dwayne, and now with Justin (Fields) in the works, it just speaks volumes,” said McCord, a five-star prospect in the 247Sports Composite rankings. “Assuming Justin goes in the first round, not too many coaches can say quarterbacks in two of the last three years have gone in the first round. That jumps off the page.”
It’s early in the 2021 recruiting cycle, but the Buckeyes have the No. 1 class in the nation by a wide margin. Of Ohio State’s 18 commits, 11 are among the nation’s top 100 in the 247Sports Composite. The Buckeyes have four five-stars, 10 four-stars, three three-stars and an unranked Australian kicker.
Ohio State has a 296.00 recruiting score this cycle, well ahead of Tennessee, which has the No. 2-ranked class with 254.18 points. OSU’s lead is even bigger in the Big Ten, with Minnesota (No. 8 overall), Iowa (No. 10), Michigan (No. 12) and Maryland (No. 14) rounding out the top five in the conference.
Ohio State has traditionally been a recruiting giant, with seven top-five classes in the past 10 seasons, and winning has magnified the success. The Buckeyes have won three straight Big Ten titles, reached the College Football Playoff in three of its six years, including winning the 2014 national championship, and they’ve been a pipeline for NFL talent, with 15 first-round picks since 2016.
Ohio State quarterback commit Kyle McCord meets former Buckeye quarterback Dwyane Haskins during a recruiting visit on April 13, 2019, in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo: Kyle McCord)
It’s the type of success that makes recruiting the nation’s top-tier athletes sustainable, even after Urban Meyer retired and Ryan Day took over the program.
“I didn’t necessarily expect a dip (after Meyer left), but I didn’t really expect what they’ve done since either,” 247Sports Midwest recruiting analyst Allen Trieu said. “Day has obviously inherited a great situation with the winning and pro-development, but he was known as a great recruiter when he was an assistant. He has continued that as a head coach even though his style and personality are not the same as Urban.”
Priorities over possibilities
Sifting through each class, Ohio State finds priority players for each position. While Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh has offered 295 scholarships so far in the 2021 cycle, for example, Day has given out a mere 168.
During McCord’s April visit, Day told the Philadelphia native that he was the top quarterback on the Buckeyes’ board. He said Ohio State would wait for his decision before focusing on someone else.
“That’s a huge recruiting tool,” McCord said. “They turn down guys at every single position and are so laser-focused on who they want. When you’re only recruiting a small number of guys, that allows for your relationships to be genuine. Nowadays, in recruiting, that’s rare.”
Michigan offered McCord on Feb. 6, 2018, nearly a year before Ohio State. But he didn’t end up being the top priority for the Wolverines, who landed IMG Academy five-star quarterback J.J. McCarthy, the No. 15 prospect in the class, 11 days after McCord picked Ohio State.
[ Meet Michigan commit J.J. McCarthy. He could be Jim Harbaugh’s best QB recruit ]
“We’re good friends right now,” McCord said of McCarthy, “but we’re definitely two competitive guys. If you go on any social media platform, they’re already comparing us. We know it’s all friendly right now, but we’re excited to compete against each other in the greatest rivalry in sports.”
Ohio State coach Ryan Day shakes hands with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh after the game at Michigan Stadium, Nov. 30, 2019. Ohio State won, 56-27. (Photo: Tony Ding, AP)
Prioritization doesn’t always work out, however. Michigan made a hard charge after top 2021 defensive end Jack Sawyer, a five-star player from Pickerington (Ohio) North, but the door was shut in February 2019 when he committed to the Buckeyes. His local ties and Ohio State’s on-field success made it impossible for the Wolverines to win.
“Probably one of the hardest schools to recruit me,” Sawyer, the nation’s third-best player, said of Michigan. “But Ohio State was in the back of my mind the whole time. I was pretty much Ohio State all the way.”
Edwards not considering OSU
West Bloomfield four-star running back Donovan Edwards would’ve loved to play with Ohio State’s incoming talent, but unlike McCord, the OSU coaching staff was unwilling to wait for him.
West Bloomfield running back Donovan Edwards is one of the top juniors in the country. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)
Four-star running back Evan Pryor had already committed, but Day wanted another recruit at the position. Edwards and five-star TreVeyon Henderson were the top targets for the opening.
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Edwards wanted to keep his options open, at least until the fall, but Henderson was ready to make a commitment, so the Buckeyes took him. That means Edwards is no longer considering Ohio State.
“I was the No. 1 (for Ohio State) since my freshman year, but I was never ready to make a decision to commit to the Buckeyes,” he said. “(Running backs) coach (Tony) Alford knew I wasn’t ready, but he still recruited what he wanted. I think TreVeyon and Evan are two pretty damn good running backs.”
Just because Edwards didn’t land with the Buckeyes doesn’t mean he’s not interested in playing with top-ranked recruits. During the in-person recruiting shutdown due to coronavirus pandemic, he has heard most from Georgia, Oklahoma, Florida, Louisville, Michigan and Texas A&M, among others.
Iron sharpens iron
Seizing a couple of top prospects can create a spark of influence for uncommitted players.
With McCord recruiting on offense, and Sawyer doing so on defense, Ohio State has become a juggernaut in this cycle. Prospects often are drawn to playing with other top prospects in hopes of a national championship and eventual draft-stock boost.
“A lot of guys take pride in that,” Sawyer said. “We’re all just ready to get in there and start working, but we’ve got to prove what everyone’s talking about us. Being able to play with other five-star and four-star talents, you get those types of athletes, that speaks for itself as to how successful we’ve been.”
Ohio State quarterback commit Kyle McCord was the second player to join the Buckeyes’ 2021 recruiting class. (Photo: Kyle McCord)
As he reflects on his recruitment, McCord said the difference for Ohio State securing top prospects goes beyond on-field success. “The biggest thing is creating genuine relationships,” he said. “That’s why you sometimes see top-rated kids commit to smaller schools. It’s because they prioritize them.”
As Ohio State builds on what could be one of the strongest classes since rankings began the early 2000s, there aren’t any signs of the program slowing down.
“They would have to really fall apart on the field,” Trieu said. “I don’t think just losing here or there will change much. Or it would have take some kind of off-the-field issue. As things stand, I do not even think a coaching change would have a big effect because that’s a great job and I would think a strong list of candidates would want it.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.