COLUMBUS, Ohio — Urban Meyer stood at a podium on national signing day in 2014, wearing the grin of a head coach who had just signed the nation’s third-ranked class.
Meyer insisted his smile was authentic.
How do we know he wasn’t lying? The Ohio State coach had the evidence.
“Jamarco Jones,” Meyer said, referencing the 4-star offensive tackle he had signed hours earlier. “That would have been a fake smile in here today if we didn’t get him.”
Nearly three years later, Jones is becoming everything Meyer cheerily envisioned he would become at the time. In his first 10 games as the Buckeyes’ starting left tackle, Jones has served as the anchor of an OSU offensive line that has helped pave the way for the nation’s 10th-ranked rushing offense while allowing the 22nd fewest sacks per game (1.40).
“He’s playing pretty good,” Meyer said of Jones on Tuesday. “Especially the past few weeks.”
Jones’ continued progress will be key moving forward as the second-ranked Buckeyes attempt to secure a spot in the College Football Playoff.
But as far as Jones’ immediate future is concerned, Saturday will mark one of the more personally meaningful games of the junior left tackle’s college career. In Michigan State, Jones will square off against the school he almost spurred Ohio State for, in a move that could have changed the courses of both programs — and left Meyer with a forced smile on signing day three years ago.
Since Meyer arrived at Ohio State, only Michigan State has matched the Buckeyes’ success in the Big Ten. From 2013-15, Ohio State amassed a 38-4 record while the Spartans stood at 36-5. The Buckeyes won the College Football Playoff in 2014, a season sandwiched between two Michigan State Big Ten title campaigns. Dating back to 2012, Meyer and MSU head coach Mark Dantonio even each possess a 2-2 record against one another.
And yet as the Buckeyes and Spartans prepare to square off on Saturday, Ohio State possesses a 9-1 record and national title hopes, while 3-7 MSU is already ineligible for postseason play.
There have been plenty of differences between the two rivals this season. But one that stands out in particular is the state of their respective offensive lines.
While the young Buckeyes line has bounced back from a less-than-stellar showing in a loss at Penn State, injuries have ravaged the Spartans’ front five throughout the year. On Michigan State’s official depth chart, redshirt freshman Cole Chewins is listed as the Spartans’ starting left tackle. In addition to the former 3-star tight end, Michigan State has used sophomore David Beedle and senior Kodi Kieler at the premier position on its offensive line.
The Spartans rank 64th nationally in sacks allowed this season with 21. Suffice to say, none of Michigan State’s options at left tackle this season have performed nearly as well as Jones has.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Since Jones opted to play for the Buckeyes, the Spartans have signed just one 4-star offensive lineman in Brian Allen. There’s more to a player than his recruiting ranking — for instance, former MSU left tackle and first-round pick Jack Conklin arrived in East Lansing as a walk-on. But the reality remains that more times than not, the ranking is right. Which is why landing a player of Jones’ caliber at a position like left tackle is so important for a program.
Three years ago, Michigan State came close to doing just that.
‘A little hectic’
When Jones committed to the Buckeyes in June 2013, he instantly became one of the cornerstones of Meyer’s 2014 class.
The fourth-ranked offensive tackle and No. 58 overall recruit in the country, Jones wasn’t just a prized prospect for the Buckeyes — he also played a position of need. Following the 2013 campaign, Ohio State lost four of its five starting offensive linemen, making Jones a candidate for early playing time in his college career.
But as signing day neared, his recruitment became more hectic than originally anticipated.
It started when the Chicago native’s area recruiter, defensive line coach Mike Vrabel, left the Buckeyes for a job with the NFL’s Houston Texans. Soon after, rumors of Jones taking a visit to Michigan State — one of the finalists when he made his original commitment — spread across online message boards.
On Jan. 30 — less than a week before signing day — ESPN’s Tom VanHaaren confirmed Jones’ intentions to take a trip to East Lansing.
Recalling Jones’ dramatic recruitment, Meyer has kept up a confident front, insisting he has no policy against committed prospects taking visits elsewhere. At the time, however, a panicked Buckeyes head coach was keeping in constant contact with Jones’ mother for as much reassurance as he could find.
“It was a little hectic,” Meyer admits. “I probably talked to his mom over the weekend, I’d say 60 times. Because she was all-Buckeye. I had her on speed dial. It was non-stop until they gave me the OK.”
As it turned out, Jones was all-Buckeye too. Just hours before faxing in his national letter of intent, he reaffirmed his commitment with a simple tweet.
— Jamarco Jones (@jjones_74) February 5, 2014
What could’ve been
Even if it required going over his cell phone plan, holding onto Jones was well worth it for Meyer. In the now-6-foot-5, 310-pound Jones, Ohio State has found a more than suitable replacement for first-round pick Taylor Decker at the most valuable position on the Buckeyes’ offensive line.
“About important as it gets,” Meyer said on Tuesday of the left tackle position. “He’s a grinder, he’s working hard and I like his development.”
Jones’ importance to Ohio State only increases when taking into account the competition for his commitment.
Two months before the Buckeyes beat the Spartans for Jones on the recruiting trail, Michigan State handed Meyer his first loss at Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game. Symbolically, the game marked the arrival of the Spartans as a legitimate Big Ten power. And if Dantonio could beat out Meyer for not just 5-star defensive tackle Malik McDowell, but Jones as well, the Spartans would have had an even stronger shot at securing long-term success.
“If you have those type of people, obviously you have a better chance at being successful,” Dantonio said on Tuesday. “We’re trying to get the very best players at every position.”
Since missing out on Jones, that hasn’t necessarily happened on the offensive line in East Lansing.
Meanwhile in Columbus, Ohio State has become a pipeline program for some of the nation’s top offensive linemen. None, however, has yet to make the impact that Jones has in his first season as a starter.
“He’s got a very nice future,” Meyer said of Jones on Tuesday.
Three years after securing his left tackle of the future, Meyer is still smiling.