COLUMBUS, Ohio — In college football recruiting, things don’t always go the way you hope. On Jan. 10, Ohio State had two wide receivers committed — Trevon Grimes and Tyjon Lindsey — and a third, Jaylen Harris, on the way. They may have heard of Ellijah Gardiner by that time, but no one that follows Ohio State football recruiting had a reason to know his name.
Then something unpredictable happened. Lindsey unexpectedly departed from the Buckeyes class and, just like that, there was a glaring need at wide receiver in the Buckeyes’ 2017 class.
So how do you go from a top-100 player that everyone had been talking about for almost two years to a 3-star prospect out of Kemp, Texas — population 1,200 — that no one had heard of in the span of three weeks? Gardiner himself told Land of 10 three weeks ago he was taken aback by the Buckeyes’ sudden interest.
“The Ohio State interest,” Gardiner said. “Came out of nowhere and slapped me right in the face.”
If you’re Urban Meyer, it starts with having other people in your organization that are really good at doing their job. Recruiting is about relationships, and no matter how much swag your program has, three weeks isn’t a ton of time to win a player and his family over.
“What happens,” Meyer said on National Signing Day, “is you lose a couple guys to the NFL draft, maybe have a de-commitment, maybe have a guy that’s going to transfer (or) that’s got some stuff going on. You put the APB out.
“We have a recruiting staff that keeps a file of players available for us, because you can’t watch 60 receivers until all of a sudden something (happens). We’re getting ready to play bowl games and all this, boom, we start hearing there is a transition maybe to the NFL. We have a staff put together things and they said, OK, here’s the top 10 guys. We go evaluate them. I get on a plane, we go see them and that’s what happens, and it’s fast.
“He came out of our staff finding him. There’s other ones we were in touch with pretty much the whole year, but we felt he was better after you got to know him.”
There’s a file of players to watch and then there are players like Ellijah Gardiner. He wasn’t on that list initially. Meyer’s ace-in-the-hole, player personnel director Mark Pantoni helped locate Gardiner through one of his most vital assistants, Eron Hodges.
“Eron,” Pantoni said, “actually found Ellijah, just searching through names. When the coaches — it was on a Sunday, Coach Meyer was in the office — we started showing him some of the receivers we’ve found and Elijah was one of them. We were every interested then, just figured we needed to get to know (Gardiner).”
Ohio State had lost Noah Brown and Curtis Samuel to the draft; Corey Smith and Dontre Wilson had graduated and Torrance Gibson had transferred to Cincinnati. Those things, combined with Lindsey’s decision, had changed the way the class needed to be built. A third receiver before had been a luxury, now it was a necessity to just make sure that there are enough bodies in the locker room.
“We felt it was fairly important, obviously, to do the search that we did,” Pantoni said about adding another player for wide receivers coach Zach Smith’s room. “We play a lot of receivers as you guys know. One, to be able to have the depth, you know, in practice, to be able to practice and get these guys the rest that they need in between practice reps. We thought was very important, so to bring a guy that we know may be a little bit developmental, but who is a big, strong, fast guy to give us some depth at that position here for the future. Like a guy like Binjimen Victor did here last year, we knew he was a guy that needed to be developed, but he came on a lot faster than we thought.”
They don’t know if Gardiner will develop that quickly, of course, but they really didn’t know much about him, at all. To do that, it was time to send in the coaches to little old Kemp, Texas.
“(Offensive coordinator) Kevin (Wilson) was down the first week to go see him with Zach Smith,” Pantoni said. “They liked his physical appearance and got great feedback from the high school coach. That next week decided to fly Coach Meyer in and he felt the same way those guys did and decided to bring him here on a visit.”
Gardiner wasn’t talking much about his interest in the Buckeyes; Ohio State had not offered. But that visit to Columbus could — and almost certainly would — give him a final answer if they would offer. He had been committed to Missouri, but that was not a concern for the Buckeyes. They don’t recruit against Missouri.
“That was almost like a job interview for him, getting him around our players, constantly asking our players what he was like with them, just to make sure, again, that we’re bringing in the right kind of kid,” Pantoni added. “All the boxes checked off positively with him. We’re glad he’s a Buckeye.”
Meyer agreed. Not every player is going to pan out, but if you’re going to miss, this is the type of prospect that you miss on.
“That’s another late developer and that’s a guy that after I really studied him and our staff really studied him and got to meet him and spend time with him, look what he’s going to be like,” Meyer said. “That’s a project type body, but big and fast. Kind of if you ‘miss’ on a player, make sure you miss fast and miss big, and they usually turn into something. But once you get to know him and his family and find out he’s a tough guy, (I was) very impressed with him.”