BELLEVILLE, Mich. — Ohio State has never enjoyed as much success in the Detroit metropolitan area as the program witnessed under long-time assistant Kerry Coombs. Coombs, who departed Ohio State for the Tennessee Titans following last season, helped the Buckeyes secure commitments from four of the highest-rated prospects in Detroit in a three-year run from 2014-16.
Damon Webb (No. 36 prospect overall, Class of 2014), Mike Weber (No. 75, 2015), Michael Jordan (No. 130, 2016) and Joshua Alabi (No. 555, 2015) helped build a pipeline from Detroit to Columbus. Three of those four players hail from Detroit Cass Tech, arguably the most talented program in Michigan, and it was there that Coombs staked his claim.
Long-time Cass Tech assistant Jermain Crowell, who has spent the last three years as coach at developing powerhouse Belleville, told Land of 10 he can’t remember when his relationship with Coombs started, but that it seems likely to last a lifetime after the bond they’ve built.
“Kerry is real. I could trust him. He didn’t [B.S.] you, he didn’t tell you what you wanted to hear, and then there’s the fact that he actually did what he said he was going to. He took care of Damon Webb. They’ve done a good job with Mikey [Weber]. I’m still waiting to see what’s going to happen with Josh [Alabi]. For the most part, Kerry – you know, every recruiter has a job to do,” Crowell said. “That’s part of their job, to recruit and to be nice. But some folks, it’s actually who they are.
“Every time I talk with Kerry, I ask about his wife, his grandkids and his kids. It’s a relationship there. I’m going to call him and I’m probably going to try to go check him out. Outside of the fact that he recruits, he’s a good person. I like him. Those are the kind of people that you feel good about sending your kids to. If something was to happen, I know that he was going to let me know what was going on and take care of things. I’ve got a trust factor with him.”
There are, understandably, huge shoes to fill in the wake of Coombs’ departure. For Ohio State to not only continue cleaning up on the top talent in Ohio, but to effectively take the fight to divisional rivals Michigan and Michigan State in their home state, it will require an impressive effort from defensive backs coach Taver Johnson.
Johnson returned to Ohio State this offseason after spending six seasons at Purdue, Arkansas, and Temple. He previously coached the Buckeyes’ cornerbacks for five years under Jim Tressel and, briefly, Luke Fickell.
Although Johnson is still working to build the relationships and easy rapport in the Detroit area that Coombs fostered over the better part of a decade — a process that takes time and patience — he has found that he has a built-in advantage.
The players that Ohio State has brought to Columbus from Detroit have almost unanimously enjoyed successful careers for the Buckeyes. More importantly, they’ve found a family and a home away from home. That creates a level of comfort that allows Ohio State to go back to Michigan and rely on the testimony of players to recruit on their behalf.
“It’s been good. Those coaches have embraced me really, really well. We’re in contact with a weekly basis. That put me at ease and that always helps. [Detroit] guys having success here always helps and more importantly, it’s just how they’re treated. When you coach high school and your guys go on to the next level, they’re still your guys and all you want to do is make sure they’re treated well,” Johnson told Land of 10. “Then they have to take care of the football part, but understanding that their welfare is number one and that we care about and they’re not being mistreated and are being looked after more than anything, that all puts those coaches at ease as well.”
What better coach to use as an example than Crowell? He spent eight years with Cass Tech, coaching Webb, Weber, Alabi and well over 30 FBS signees in total before moving to Belleville. His Belleville program, one of the most talented in Michigan, routinely produces high-level recruits. Five expected prospects on the team’s 2018 roster already hold offer lists in the double-digits.
Crowell says the feedback from his many players who are in college football programs is invaluable in the recruiting process, helping separate the real from the fake in recruiting.
“I use that to try to guide kids. If you want to go to this school, know this and this is what I’m hearing about this school. This is the real on this school, because we’ve got players there now. Once the kids are in the program, the real and the truth is going to come out,” Crowell said. “You can’t hide now. If you’re doing right by the kids, hey, we’ve got no problem. It’s not going to always be where every kid is going to be happy because every kid isn’t going to pan out. Every kid isn’t going to get the same type of effort. Even when those kids don’t pan out or don’t do what’s expected of them when they left, treat them right.”
Ohio State is not unique in Crowell’s evaluations of the program. He keeps a close eye on the Buckeyes and other programs that recruit his school heavily. Crowell “loved” how Ohio State treated Webb, praising the program’s patience, and remains curious to see how Weber and Alabi will finish their careers at the program.
Alabi is perhaps the most interesting piece of the puzzle. His relationship with Crowell and 5-star 2019 tackle Devontae Dobbs repeatedly come up in conversations. Dobbs, the No. 1 offensive lineman in the 247Sports composite rankings for 2019, has Ohio State as one of his top programs.
The redshirt junior Buckeyes offensive lineman was instrumental in helping Dobbs land his offer from Ohio State — ironically enough, by encouraging the young player to call out 5-star defensive end Chase Young, his future teammate — and he has continued to spend time around the young blue-chip prospect.
“I know Dobbs. His head coach is a Cass Tech guy, so I talk to him and make sure he has a good time when he comes down here, all that type of stuff,” Alabi said. “I love Coach Crowell. Great guy and great coach. He’s all about the kids and sending kids to the next level.”
Just because Alabi maintains a close relationship with Crowell and wants to help Ohio State haul in more high-level talent doesn’t mean he’ll sugar coat what he should expect in college football.
“When recruits come here or I know a recruit, I tell them to make sure your decision is what you want to do and if you do come here and just be ready to work and know that it’s going to be a lot of competition,” Alabi said. “But also know that you’re going to make it to the next level if you work hard and listen to the coaches.”
It will be relationships like these that will help Ohio State bridge the gap following Coombs’ departure. Make no mistake, Dobbs has a close relationship with offensive line coach Greg Studrawa and the entire Ohio State coaching staff, but certain messages are different coming from a fellow player than they are from a coach.
“[Alabi] just really keeps it real with me. He just tells me that Ohio State is a place you can go to and get player development and that they’ll get me right,” Dobbs explained.
Statements like that carry weight for recruits. Ohio State likes to use the phrase “Theory versus testimony” in recruiting. When Dobbs has a player that he grew up with and has watched developed ahead of him tell him how Ohio State can make him a better player, or how he needs to get ready for college football, it can bring back memories of the same process occurring before he arrived in high school.
“They grew up together,” Crowell said of Dobbs and Alabi. “When I was still at Cass, there was a time when Dobbs was thinking about coming to Cass. He would work with the Technicians and then Josh was still there. I remember him probably being in the seventh grade running around behind Josh. They’ve known each other for a long time.”
Of course, when you rely on player testimony as a heavy part of a recruiting effort, there are risks, too. Webb started 27 consecutive games at safety for Ohio State, Jordan has started every game he’s played for the Buckeyes and Weber has piled up over 1,700 rushing yards in his first two seasons. But Alabi is heading into his redshirt junior season without a clear path to a starting spot. That could be a cause for concern.
“I think Dobbs has a great relationship with Josh and I think he’s watching to see what happens with Josh. It’ll be like ‘Coach, if you say Josh is better than me and Josh isn’t playing … .’ The kids, they watch and they talk and every kid’s situation is different,” Crowell explained. “Mikey recruits Ohio State hard. If I ever bring Webb over here, which I will, he’ll tell them to go to Ohio State.”
Ohio State seems well-established in Detroit for the future and the strategy quickly could pay short-term dividends. The Buckeyes are a major factor for Dobbs and seem to be a heavy favorite for 2020 Oak Park (Mich.) offensive lineman Justin Rogers. They also will continue to pursue future prospects like Rashawn Williams and Damon Payne.
It may be too early to tell how the loss of Coombs will be felt in the long-term and what kind of impact it may have, but the Buckeyes are working hard to nullify any ill effects of his absence. The opportunity to rob Michigan and Michigan State of some of the most coveted talent in their backyard is too valuable for Ohio State to have much of a backslide in Detroit.
Urban Meyer and Co. will be working hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.