Georgia has established itself as one of the premier states for top college football talent.
The top-2 2018 recruits and three of the top 10 in the 247Sports composite rankings hail from Georgia. Mammoth offensive linemen Trey Hill and Jamaree Salyer had interest nationwide but chose to stay home and sign with Georgia.
And yet, with all this talent, they don’t get much bigger than Michigan State signee James Ohonba. Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 366 pounds, the 3-star standout is nearly impossible to miss. Hampton (Ga.) High coach Chad Ashley faced him twice and hasn’t forgotten.
“He’s just really big,” Ashley said. “He’s got big hands, big features. His best football’s probably still ahead of him. He moves pretty well. He really does.”
The Michigan State coaches took notice of those features. At his early signing period press conference, coach Mark Dantonio referenced Ohonba’s size 18 shoes. Two weeks earlier, he had been in Ohonba’s home holding one of those massive cleats up for a photo. He said he thought he could have curled up in it.
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That’s what stuck out to the coaches even more than Ohonba’s formidable offer list. Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, USC and more all jumped into the race.
“We don’t pay much mind to that,” offensive line coach Mark Staten said. “I couldn’t tell you if he had Duke or if he had this. We don’t care. If we like you and we think we’re going to be able to do something with you, we’re going to go after you.”
There was plenty to like about Ohonba’s film. He played guard and tackle and showed uncommon athleticism for his size. And despite his massive frame, he’s still more than three months from his 18th birthday.
Ohonba “plays with a mean streak,” according to Ashley. Against a guy like that, he and his players had to accept that they would struggle against him and try not to get overwhelmed.
“We played an odd front defensively, so we had guys who were head up on him, but we were slanting the gaps just trying to mess up their rules,” Ashley said. “If they don’t know where we’re going, hopefully it’ll mess up the rules they have, bring extra guys, stuff like that. Just your normal stuff you do defensively.
“You try to make sure you have a guy there that understands to just compete. You may lose a lot more than you win, but just keep competing.”
Ohonba’s Woodland (Stockbridge, Ga.) team demolished Hampton in 2016 but fell short in a 17-14 loss this fall. Still, Ashley saw progression in terms of moving his feet and using his hands.
Those two years showed Ashley what not to do against a player like Ohonba: namely, get low and don’t try to bull rush him. Ohonba was at tackle against Hampton, but Ashley saw versatility in his game.
“Guys at the collegiate level are a whole lot more athletic,” Ashley said. “I could see him being a guard because of his size. I could see him being a tackle. To be a tackle at that level, you’ve got to have excellent feet. I don’t know who he’s gonna be going against every Saturday, but he’s so big, when he really starts becoming a man, I could definitely see him as a guard.”
He looks like a man already, but Ohonba has work to do to get ready for college football. The priority lately has been rehabbing from a knee injury suffered late in the season. But when he’s healthy, the Spartans have high hopes.
“[James] is an athletic guy for his size,” Dantonio said. “He played soccer and basketball early in his career. He looks to be a dominant player for us. James has all the physical attributes of a tremendous offensive lineman.”