COLUMBUS, Ohio — The stars matter to Ohio State.
Unless they don’t.
Urban Meyer and his coaching staff pay attention to the recruiting rankings, and they’ve made it no secret that they want to win if somebody is keeping score. But there are also times when the scoreboard might not reflect what the Buckeyes are seeing, which means there are situations when they are willing to sacrifice some subjective points in the short-term in order to put up a lot more when it’s objective on the field.
For a program recruiting at a ridiculously high level and potentially headed for the No. 1 spot in the nation on Wednesday, Ohio State isn’t exactly looking for true diamonds in the rough. But it has also had some jaw-dropping success with some 3-star signees, a reflection that there are times when the Buckeyes have to trust their own evaluations over the national consensus.
“There is a correlation between how teams do and where your team is ranked, recruiting class is ranked,” Meyer said back on signing day in 2014. “But certainly that’s not the final product because you’ve got to coach and develop them and get them here.
“So actually we do pay attention to that. But it’s not saying we take a kid who is a five star over a three star, if we believe in the three star. That’s not it at all.”
On that particular day, a defensive back from Pennsylvania offered his signature after collecting just three stars during the recruiting process. Malik Hooker then turned himself into a first-round NFL draft pick and one of the most dynamic defenders in the nation by the end of his career.
He’s just one example of Ohio State’s approach that blends an ability to attract high-end prospects with an eye for candidates with untapped potential. And here’s a look at some of those success stories.
Pat Elflein, 2012
The Buckeyes may have had something of a home-field advantage with the product of nearby Pickerington (Ohio) North, since it didn’t have to go too far to learn about the hard-working, physical lineman. That’s something of a common theme with Ohio State’s most productive 3-stars in the Meyer Era, and Elflein helped set that tone by becoming a three-year starter, a captain, the Rimington Trophy winner and eventually a third-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings. Elflein was simply invaluable on the offensive line for the Buckeyes, and a prime example of a player who made sure that his recruiting ranking wouldn’t define his career.
Darron Lee, 2013
Meyer is still quick to point to the “skinny-neck kid from New Albany that played quarterback that ended up being okay” as an example of why sometimes counting stars doesn’t work. Darron Lee played all over the field for New Albany but still needed the Buckeyes to take a chance on him and offer a scholarship before he could blossom into a superstar and first-round draft pick at linebacker. Lee’s speed and versatility paid off in a huge way for Ohio State, who leaned on him all the way to a national championship in 2014.
Malik Hooker, 2014
As a recruit, Hooker might have been viewed as a safer bet as a basketball player than a relatively inexperienced defensive back after playing just two seasons of football in high school. But Ohio State was blown away by his versatility and eventually got him to step off the hardwood and into cleats, which worked out perfectly for everybody involved. Hooker’s first career start ended with a pair of interceptions, and by the end of his redshirt sophomore season, he was drawing comparisons to Ed Reed — and would wind up being a first-round draft pick by the Indianapolis Colts.
Michael Thomas, 2012
Sometimes the projects take a little time, and there were certainly some growing pains early in the career of Michael Thomas at Ohio State — including a surprising redshirt during his second year on campus. But Thomas kept improving on the head-turning, raw ability that was always evident on the practice field and developed into a consistent, game-changing weapon that eventually helped deliver a national title to the Buckeyes. And all he’s done since getting drafted by the New Orleans Saints is become one of the most dangerous wide receivers in the NFL.
Chris Worley, 2013
The national accolades may not have piled up for Worley the same way it did a few other guys on this list, but he was a staple in the lineup for Ohio State with 24 career starts, capable of playing all three positions at linebacker and a respected captain. Worley finished with 154 tackles in his career, which is a pretty solid return on investment with a 3-star recruit and absolutely should be considered a success in hindsight given his role for a team that won so many games thanks in part to his contributions. He’ll almost certainly be getting a chance to show what he can do at the next level, and Worley has already proven he can exceed expectations.