Land of 10 has embarked on a series of “Next Generation” articles, a project that aims to bring our readers greater insight into the Class of 2018 signees. Land of 10 Ohio State reporter Ryan Ginn visited members of the Ohio State incoming freshman class. In this edition, we feature Jaelen Gill.
WESTERVILLE, Ohio — Just months before starting high school at Westerville South, Jaelen Gill took part in an Ohio State one-day recruiting camp. While Jaelen worked out, his father, Rod, made small talk with Rivals.com recruiting analyst Marc Givler and made a bold statement.
“We stumbled upon Rod Gill and were chatting with him for a few minutes, and eventually he very casually mentioned that his son was here and was going to be a freshman in high school and he could run a sub-4.5 [40-yard dash] already,” Givler said. “You hear stuff like this a lot, and it often turns out to be exaggerated.”
Each Ohio State summer camp concludes with an event called the Smokehouse, in which kids from all grades and positions compete to see which player is the fastest. It’s done first by position and age, and the winners of those heats come back for a final race. Jaelen, who was just 14 at the time, won the final race by multiple steps.
“He was the fastest man at the entire camp,” Givler said. “We joke all the time that it was one of the only times a parent was telling us the truth. And [Rod] wasn’t in our face about it. He only mentioned it after a few minutes of conversation and was very casual. He just kind of snuck that in there. Then Jaelen went out and backed it up.”
That was nothing new for Gill, who’d been outracing his opponents since he first strapped on the pads at age 5. He’d long been the fastest among his peers, and training only heightened that advantage.
“Speed definitely comes natural to me,” Gill said. “I think I boosted it a little bit when I started training really hard at the end of eighth grade. … I had a really good trainer, we did a lot of speed and agility stuff, some powerlifting stuff just to get my agility up, exposed to this and all of that.”
From the time Jaelen started walking, sports fascinated him. He learned how to play by watching those around him.
“We have pictures from when he was a toddler,” said Gill’s mom, Shelly. “Rod and I used to sit on the sofa and Jaelen would bring a ball to us and he’d point like, ‘You throw to him, and you throw to her.’ We were like, ‘He’s going to be a coach or something because he’s too bossy.’ Eventually, we realized that it wasn’t him being bossy, he was watching us and he was using that to learn how to catch.
“To calm him down, you would put a ball in front of him and he’d sit there and just watch it. We tried giving him cars, other things — no interest. It’s always been a ball.”
By age 4, Jaelen was asking for a football helmet for Christmas. He also begged to play in the Gahanna Youth League, but Shelly wanted him to wait another year. So after his fifth birthday, Jaelen got his first taste of organized football. His coaches used him on the defensive line.
It wasn’t exactly love at first sight, but he fought through his early struggles.
“When I first started, I sucked,” Jaelen said with a laugh. “I was always going out crying or whatever. Then, as the season went on, I definitely got the hang of it and I started making some tackles and I started to figure it out. My second year is when I started [playing] running back.”
He was off and running. He blew by his peers throughout childhood football, often scoring touchdowns without defenders touching him. Then he arrived at that Ohio State camp.
When Jaelen won the Smokehouse event at an Ohio State camp loaded with talented players — most of whom were several years older — it became clear he soon would have the attention of schools around the country. That summer, he proved to be a standout in 7-on-7 events, including one in nearby Dublin.
“I remember we were leaving at the end of it and Marc was like, ‘Get ready, you’re about to go on the ride,’ ” Shelly said.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple for a Columbus-area recruit. Growing up about 15 miles from Ohio Stadium, Jaelen admittedly rooted for the Buckeyes and always wanted to end up in Columbus. At the same time, he wanted to see what else was out there and make sure he was making the right choice. That proved more difficult than one might expect.
Though he was a borderline 5-star prospect, coaches outside of the Midwest sometimes were reluctant to offer Gill or invest much time because they viewed him as an Ohio State lock.
Ohio State has been known to occasionally miss on in-state talent, especially in the Cincinnati and Cleveland areas. Clemson poached Fairfield 5-star tackle Jackson Carman in the 2018 class, and Notre Dame has won its share of battles against Ohio State for Catholic-school players. But Central Ohio belongs to the Buckeyes. There hasn’t been a player from the Columbus area with an Ohio State scholarship offer who turned down the Buckeyes since Michigan legacy Justin Boren in 2006 — and he eventually transferred to Ohio State.
Gill took unofficial visits to USC and UCLA, in addition to Penn State, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Tennessee and Michigan State. But most of those visits were soon followed by trips back to Ohio State’s campus.
“There was a point where I thought I was going to go to either USC or UCLA. One random morning, it just hit me: ‘No, I want to stay home,’ ” Jaelen said. “I talked to my family and talked to coaches, and I was a silent commitment for about three or four months.”
He committed on March 1, 2017, and a fakeout in which he briefly revealed a UCLA shirt was the closest he came to leaving Columbus.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer’s offense is known for its use of the H-back, a hybrid role with elements of running back and wide receiver. For years, Florida star Percy Harvin was the gold standard for what that position could be under Meyer, but Curtis Samuel reached that level when he finished with 865 receiving yards and 771 rushing yards in 2016 for the Buckeyes, scoring 8 touchdowns on the ground and 7 through the air.
The H-back position at Ohio State is deep, with Parris Campbell and K.J. Hill coming back as key contributors and Demario McCall fighting for reps. But Gill will be a factor at some point because this position perfectly suits his skill set.
“That’s how they want to use me — as a returner as well, so kind of like a utility guy, but probably more,” Gill said. “A guy that can do all things.”
He works relentlessly to improve, whether training or studying past performances.
“I watch my own film almost every day, not to glorify myself or anything,” Gill said. “I just try to watch the smallest things. Even if it’s a good play or whatever, I’ll see if I could have done anything better and just look at footwork and all that stuff.
“That’s why I’m doing footwork stuff on the field, uphills, stuff like that, just to try and get better. I’d say every day I probably spend up to like, honestly, an hour every day just watching clips of games.”
Four years removed from that Smokehouse win, Gill has his sights on bigger prizes. He said Meyer has told him he can be as good or better than Harvin and Samuel, and Givler believes Gill has as much talent and potential as past Meyer stars at H-back.
“I think he can be a Curtis Samuel type of guy,” Givler said. “The thing that he has on Curtis is that Jaelen has worked out at receiver a lot over the last couple years. He played some receiver at Westerville South and did slot receiver on the recruiting camp circuit and at Ohio State camps. He’s a more polished receiver than Curtis Samuel was coming into college. I think he has the ability to be that good.”
Jaelen Gill breakdown
|247Sports composite ranking (APB/overall)||No. 2/No. 30|
|Commitment date||March 1, 2017|