COLUMBUS, Ohio — The fifth-ranked Ohio State football team will head to College Park, Md., on Saturday for a 3:30 p.m. EST kickoff with Maryland.
Less than 24 hours earlier, and about 25 miles away in Annapolis, what could have been one of the key pieces of Urban Meyer’s defense will have played the first game of his junior season against Navy — for the Buckeyes basketball team.
No, this isn’t playful hyperbole — as it was three years ago when Meyer suggested he had a spot on his team saved for then-Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft to serve as a safety. When it comes to Jae’Sean Tate’s ability on the gridiron, the Buckeyes forward possessed the potential to be a top-level prospect.
“He was a really a good player,” longtime Ohio high school football scout John McCallister told Land of 10. “He was a good basketball player, but he would have been a dominating football player.”
Talk to anybody who watched Tate’s short-lived high school football career and that seems to be the consensus. In just one full season of varsity ball at Pickerington (Ohio) Central, Tate stood out on both sides of the ball as an outside linebacker and tight end on the 2011 Division I state championship runner-up.
To this day, Tate admits to wondering “what could have been?” if not for a shoulder injury that brought his high school football career to a premature end midway through his junior season.
“Football was actually my first love,” Tate said with a smile earlier this week. “If it wasn’t due to injury, who knows? I might be on the football field.”
What would that have looked like?
For one, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound forward would still likely be wearing scarlet and gray.
McCallister said that had he stuck with football, Tate would have been one of the top “six or seven” prospects in the state of Ohio’s 2014 class, which included three current Buckeyes starters in Marshon Lattimore, Parris Campbell and Sam Hubbard. If McCallister’s assessment is correct, that would have made Tate at least a 4-star prospect coming out of high school — likely as an outside linebacker.
Rivals.com recruiting analyst Marc Givler has long shared an even more optimistic view of Tate’s gridiron potential.
We’ll never know for sure how things would’ve turned out but Jae’sean Tate likely would have been my No.1 football prospect in Ohio for 2014
— Marc Givler (@MarcGivlerBG) December 3, 2014
I just want Jae’sean Tate to play SAM linebacker. Is that too much to ask?
— Marc Givler (@MarcGivlerBG) January 17, 2015
Regardless of where he ranked, both McCallister and Givler agree: Tate was an Ohio State-caliber talent on the football field. And as the Buckeyes staff watched Pickerington Central and future Ohio State center Jacoby Boren in the fall of 2011, it took note of the lanky outside linebacker who terrorized opposing backfields alongside current Michigan defensive end Taco Charlton.
“There was a little interest from Ohio State. I mean, there had to be,” McCallister said. “Ohio State [football] knew about him.”
What was it like to watch Tate’s high motor on the football field? Picture a prototypical 3-4 outside linebacker, who possessed the type of athleticism that would allow a player to lineup at nearly any position on the field.
“He made tackles, he could stunt, he could blitz,” McCallister recalled. “He was just really big and strong.”
Buckeyes fans, however, have still been able to enjoy Tate’s physical gifts.
Since Tate arrived alongside future No. 2 overall NBA draft pick D’Angelo Russell in the summer of 2014, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta has consistently praised the former 4-star (basketball) prospect as the “heart and soul” of the Buckeyes program.
On the hardwood, the same high energy he used to attack opposing offenses on the gridiron is more than apparent. Whether it’s watching Tate fight off a bigger opponent for a rebound, dive for a loose ball or lock up an opponent’s top scorer — regardless of position — sometimes it seems like he really should be wearing a helmet and shoulder pads.
That’s not an accident, either.
“Having that attack mindset and the physical play that I do on the court, I got that from playing football,” Tate said. “I try to incorporate that into basketball.”
But while football was his first love, the son of former Ohio State and Cincinnati basketball player Jermaine Tate grew up in the gym. As bullish as McCallister was on a potential future — in a 2013 scouting report, he wrote football was Tate’s better sport — even he knew he’d likely be spending his college career playing for Matta and not Meyer. His football seasons often started later than most of his teammates, thanks to the AAU summer circuit.
On Nov. 20, 2012, Tate committed to the Buckeyes basketball program and figured he’d never look back.
Five months later, he reported on Twitter that Cincinnati had extended him an offer — to play football. It had been more than a year since he had last played the sport for a full season.
At the midway point of a college career, one in which he’s shown plenty of promise despite dealing with that reoccurring shoulder injury, Tate appears to have been vindicated in his decision to stick with hoops. Perhaps one day, if the NBA doesn’t work out, he’ll reconsider and try to catch on in the NFL a la ex-college hoopers-turned-Pro Bowl tight ends Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham.
“He possibly could do that,” McCallister speculated.
Until then, we’ll all have to settle for asking the same question Tate sometimes finds himself asking.
What could have been?