When you recruit at the level Ohio State has recruited in head coach Urban Meyer’s tenure, it’s easy to get caught up in the glitz and glamour of all the top 100 players. Since 2012, Meyer’s first class with the Buckeyes, Ohio State has signed an almost overwhelming number of the country’s best prep prospects.
The talent in Columbus is undeniable, and the 2017 recruiting class – the country’s top-ranked group – doesn’t hint at any sign of a slowdown. With all the big names that have come through Ohio State in recent years, there have been a handful of players – less heralded though still immensely talented – who, for whatever reason, weren’t at the top of the wish list for the Buckeyes but went on to become major contributors at Ohio State anyway.
Recruiting is an inexact science and there are definitely times when players you think will be great don’t pan out, but just as often there are players who emerge from relative obscurity and become big stars just because someone took a chance and gave them a shot to shine.
There may not be a coach on Ohio State’s staff who does that – recognizing the right player and the right person – better than Luke Fickell.
The American Football Coaches Association assistant coach of the year in 2010, Fickell seemingly finds one diamond in the rough every single recruiting cycle, or at the least he’s done that since Meyer’s arrival.
Earning your stripes
It was Fickell who offered Joshua Perry, a rangy defensive end/linebacker from nearby Olentangy High School in the summer of 2010 and who helped him become the first commitment in the 2012 recruiting class, Meyer’s first with the Buckeyes. Though Perry had been committed to Ohio State for almost 18 months when Meyer took over, it was Fickell who was tasked with convincing the incoming head coach that Perry belonged.
“(Luke) Fickell was my go-to guy,” Perry, a fourth-round pick of the San Diego Chargers in the NFL draft last April, told Landof10. “It was him and (Houston Texans defensive coordinator Mike) Vrabel who I would talk to the most. Coach Fick came and visited me at school. He was my main point of contact when I came on campus visits. It was essentially him who helped make Ohio State feel like home.
“When I was getting recruited, it was (former coach Jim) Tressel’s staff. But when the new staff got there, he had a little convincing to do with Urban. (He had to convince him) that I was going to be a good player since I’m not a ‘flash’ guy. Coach Fick convinced him to give me a real shot. Most of coach Fickell’s work came from the standpoint of telling coach Urban to give me some time to develop.”
Perry played in 10 games as a freshman for Meyer’s first team. The development of the Lewis Center, Ohio, athlete may have played a part in Fickell getting another local guy who Meyer wasn’t sure of in the 2013 recruiting cycle. That’s when New Albany’s Darron Lee, a two-way star for the Golden Eagles, began turning heads. Lee had to fight for his offer, but Fickell had to fight for him as well. The Buckeyes linebacker coach knew what he was looking for.
“Especially recruiting at linebacker,” Fickell told Landof10. “Because I’ll be coaching them, but when you’ve been someplace and you really know your program, you have to ask yourself if those guys will really thrive in your environment. You really have to know your kids. Not just will they survive, but they can thrive? I don’t just mean football. I mean socially and academically at Ohio State.”
It’s a different world at Ohio State now
At Ohio State, the rules are different than they were five years ago. When Meyer took over at the helm for the Buckeyes, the roster had some obvious holes as the new coaching staff tried to rebrand the football program. There were opportunities for some players to get into a class that may not have that chance now, when offers for the “to be developed players” that Fickell seems to specialize in have dwindled. If you can’t play at Ohio State on Day One, Meyer’s program may not have room for you.
“We’re recruiting a player to play immediately,” said Meyer, who has not had a recruiting class ranked lower than seventh nationally since he arrived at Ohio State. “You have some great story lines in there. Why did you take Darron Lee then? Why did you take, maybe a Josh Perry or Tyvis Powell. Why did you take a Malik Harrison? Those are the guys that maybe we just see this incredible end of a career. So usually you only take a handful – not even a handful – three or four guys like that that you call them projects, but if it develops, now watch out you have a monster.
“But we don’t, we’re not in (that) game (anymore). Years ago you would do that. You’d say: ‘Let’s take this kid, what do you think he’s going to be like in two to three years?’ We’re very rarely in that conversation now.”
Now that the conversation is rare, you have to trust the guys who have proved they’re capable of being right. Fickell has done that. After 18 years as a college head coach – all of them in Ohio – the 42-year-old Fickell has earned the trust of Meyer, a difficult feat to accomplish for the notoriously skeptical Buckeyes head coach. That has allowed Fickell to pound the table, year in and year out, for “his” guys. First it was Joshua Perry and Darron Lee, then it was Malik Hooker, then Dublin’s Nick Conner, then Walnut Ridge’s Malik Harrison and now, without a fight, it’s Olentangy Liberty star Brendon White in the 2017 class. The proof is in the pudding.
“Luke Fickell knows this state as well as anybody,” Meyer told the media during a recent press conference. “He’s a really good recruiter about that: ‘I think this kid’s going to turn out, give him one more year and he’s going to be a major player.’ ”
It’s not just Fickell doing the identifying of those “projects,” of course. As Ohio State’s director of player personnel, Mark Pantoni also plays a role in seeing guys early. On the field, Ohio State is looking for a specific formula and they’ve found it close to home a few times lately. What are they looking for?
“Long athletes who can run,” Pantoni told Landof10 when asked about the secret recipe for those players. “They have to be very productive on film.”
It’s more than just numbers
No matter how good a player is on film, especially against competition that may occasionally be significantly less talented, there’s something more to finding a diamond in the rough than just identifying game skill. It’s one part athleticism, one part mentality. To see the person behind the player, to see what motivates him to be great. That’s an area where Fickell – who started 50 straight games at nose tackle for the Buckeyes from 1993 through 1996 – excels.
“Sure, some guys are straight off statistics and film,” Fickell said. “It’s like an airline pilot, if he goes just off his instruments all the time, what happens if the instruments go? There’s certainly intuition, knowing who a guy is and knowing he can thrive. It’s about getting to know who they are deep down. That’s not all available on film.”
That’s what helped Fickell with Perry and, more recently, with Malik Hooker. A rising star in the Buckeyes secondary, Hooker didn’t start playing football until his junior year of high school, so his tape was limited but his athleticism was apparent. It was Fickell – and Pantoni – who saw something worth taking a shot on.
“He knew for sure that I could be special from the start,” Perry said of Fickell. “I think he’s a great evaluator of traits in players, physically, but since he was a player at Ohio State, he knows all of the intangibles it takes (to succeed). He’s good at getting to know individual players so he can tell if they have what it takes to develop.”
“Coach Fickell came to see me a lot, calling me a lot, talking to my mom and just making sure I was doing good in school,” Hooker said. “A lot of the year. When I saw he was interested, it made me want to visit here more, and I visited a few times and fell in love with the environment.
“I felt like he saw that even though I didn’t play a lot of football in high school, I was very athletic and I could be very good if I just trained and worked at it.”
The relationships matter
The relationships Fickell has built with “his” guys extend well beyond the football field. If you want to know why he’s been trusted with the development of players from Raekwon McMillan to Malik Harrison, it’s not hard to figure out. Identify big potential, develop talent into a well-rounded player and do so while building young men into good men. That’s what Fickell has done. Sometimes knowing your players means understanding when they may not fit.
“If you believe in a kid and know in your heart that they’ll thrive, you have to pound the table for them,” Fickell said. “But, then you have to develop them. If you believe in them, they’ll live up to what’s expected. There are times, if we go back to guys like Jonathan Newsome or Dorian Bell, I personally said we have to let these guys go. It was for the betterment of themselves.”
That honesty and integrity in his recruiting and his coaching style is why Fickell is once again considered as one of the country’s hottest assistant coaches. That’s why he, after 18 years as an assistant coach in Ohio, could be in line for a head coaching job outside of the Buckeye State in the near future.
“Luke is my guy. He is up there with my parents in terms of people who I can trust and know will always look out for me,” Perry said. “I still talk to him every couple weeks to catch up. I have full faith that when he takes the next step, he’ll be great.”