COLUMBUS, Ohio — When it comes to recruiting, Ohio State has shown under Urban Meyer that it can get players from just about anywhere.
The Buckeyes have signed players from more than half the states in the country over the last seven recruiting cycles, including South Dakota, Arkansas and Oklahoma, where they’d never previously had a scholarship player.
But while it’s easier than ever for Ohio State to pick up players from California to Florida, it never hurts to have talent close to home. And in Ohio, elite talent is being produced closer to Ohio Stadium than ever before. Once an afterthought, the Central Ohio region has started to close the gap on Northeast and Southwest Ohio when it comes to churning out elite high school players.
“I don’t want to say it was a joke, but it was way behind [in the late 1990s],” 247Sports recruiting analyst Bill Greene. “Northeast Ohio and the Cincinnati/Dayton area were so far ahead. Well, it’s not that way anymore.”
In the Class of 2018 alone, more than a dozen players from the Columbus area ended up at Power 5 schools such as Ohio State, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Minnesota and Purdue. The area also sent players to Cincinnati, Colorado State and a host of MAC schools.
“About eight or 10 years ago, you could start to notice the depth of talent coming out of the area,” said Marc Givler, who covers Ohio State recruiting for Rivals.com. “I think it’s always been an area where you’d occasionally get an elite kid, but the depth has been impressive in recent years and it’s only getting better.”
In addition to depth, there’s been the top-end talent that Ohio State covets. Central Ohio has produced the second-ranked player in Ohio in each of the last three recruiting classes — running back Jaelen Gill in 2018, athlete Brendon White in 2017 and defensive end Jonathon Cooper in 2016 — and the Buckeyes signed all three of them.
It’s only getting better, as the No. 1 player in Ohio and No. 2 national prospect for 2019, 5-star defensive end Zach Harrison, plays at Olentangy Orange in Lewis Center, just 15 miles from campus.
So what changed? It’s been a combination of two factors. First, and perhaps most importantly, the Columbus metro area is growing as other Ohio cities shrink. The city’s population jumped from 632,910 in the 1990 census to 787,033 in the 2010 census, and that growth is slowing down. A 2016 estimate put Columbus’ population at 860,090. The suburbs have spiked, too, with the metro area population estimated at 2,078,725, which ranks 32nd nationally, ahead of Cleveland and just three spots behind Cincinnati.
Additionally, the population shift and increase in talent appears to have attracted better high school coaches.
“The coaching is so amazing there now,” Greene said. “That’s what’s helped elevate things. There’s great coaching. Not only are they producing higher-end talent and 5-stars and 4-stars, but the high school teams are also getting better overall.”
All of this has been to the obvious benefit of Ohio State. While the Buckeyes rarely miss on in-state talent, it’s been known to happen in the Cincinnati and Cleveland areas. Clemson poached Fairfield 5-star tackle Jackson Carman in the 2018 class, and Notre Dame regularly causes problems for Ohio State. Central Ohio, on the other hand, hasn’t had a player with an Ohio State scholarship offer turn down the Buckeyes since Michigan legacy Justin Boren in 2006 — and he eventually transferred to Ohio State.
Though the margin between Central Ohio and other cities isn’t that wide, having more elite players in an area where Ohio State never misses is a bonus the Buckeyes won’t complain about. Givler noted that it does put more pressure on the staff to get evaluations right because failing to offer a home-grown player who becomes a star is a bigger deal than missing on players from anywhere else. (Pickerington native Jake Butt, for example, wasn’t offered by Ohio State and caused problems for the Buckeyes for years as Michigan’s tight end.) In the end, though, that’s a problem worth having.
“If you ask Urban Meyer, I guarantee you he’s happy that Zach Harrison is at Olentangy Orange and not in Orange County, California,” Greene said. “You want that kid 5 minutes from your house instead of across the state or several states away.
“In recruiting, the line is so thin and you want everything in your favor. Those players can get in a car and drive 10 minutes to see your school instead of flying across the country. Ohio State has to love that.”