COLUMBUS, Ohio — Urban Meyer strolled across the practice field of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, prepared to tape the final segments of his weekly coaches show.
But before the Ohio State head coach could reach the midfield makeshift TV set, something caught his attention. On a team stockpiled with blue-chip talent and emerging NFL draft prospects, it was an unlikely member of the Buckeyes roster who found himself surrounded by visiting reporters, hoping to hear his story for the first time.
“Larry,” an equally excited and exasperated Meyer called to Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson across the field. “Robert Landers is getting interviewed. Think about that. Landers. What a country.”
In a football-crazed city where legends can be born just a third of the way through a season, no burgeoning star on the Ohio State roster has come as more of a surprise than Landers, a former 3-star prospect seeing the first game action of his college career. Despite 4- and 5-star prospects flanking him on the depth chart, the redshirt freshman defensive lineman has tallied a team-high 5 tackles for loss this season, including the first sack of his college career in OSU’s 58-0 rout of Rutgers on Saturday.
“I don’t like being the center of attention. I never have. That’s never really been my thing,” Landers said of his sudden celebrity status. “Some kids on campus that I have class with, we’ll talk a little more because they’ll see the games and congratulate me, but for the most part, my routine has pretty much been the same.”
It hasn’t hurt that he doesn’t look like a typical defensive lineman. Listed at a liberal 6-foot-1 and perhaps an even more generous 290 pounds, Landers hardly even stands out as an Ohio State football player.
“I blend in a lot better than Michael Jordan — a lot better,” Landers said, referring to the Buckeyes’ 6-7, 310-pound freshman offensive lineman. “Most days are just another day for me really.”
And yet there he stood, surrounded by a throng of reporters he could hardly see over to notice that it was one of college football’s most powerful coaches who was playfully teasing him in the distance.
As the questions came in, each sounded like a variation of the same backhanded compliment.
Who is Robert Landers? And how has such an ordinary looking person found himself in such an extraordinary position?
‘He didn’t have a whole bunch going on’
Who is Robert Landers?
Luke Fickell didn’t know until his high school career was just about over.
But as the calls from the high school coaches across Ohio became a weekly occurrence in the winter of 2014, the Ohio State defensive coordinator noticed a common theme. It started with Dublin Coffman head coach Mark Crabtree.
“You gotta look at this kid,” Crabtree told Fickell after Landers made a living in the Shamrocks’ backfield during Huber Heights (Ohio) Wayne’s 44-35 win over Coffman in the Division I second-round playoff game.
Then came a call from Cincinnati Moeller coach John Rodenberg.
“I don’t know what you guys are doing,” he said after Landers-led Wayne ended his team’s season in the state semifinals. “But you gotta look at this kid.”
Rick Finotti, whose Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward team faced Wayne in the state finals game, didn’t disagree.
“He took away three-fourths of our run game,” Fickell recalls Finotti telling him. “So you better look at this kid.”
Wayne head coach Jay Minton was plenty familiar with the frustration Finotti felt.
When Landers was a freshman at Wayne — the alma mater of former Ohio State star Braxton Miller — upperclassmen would complain that the 5-11, 240-pound lineman was making practice too difficult for them.
“It was tough to get off a play or two,” Minton told Land of 10. “He was that dominant early on.”
After appearing in two games as a freshman, Landers became a cornerstone of the Warriors defense in his sophomore and junior seasons, the latter of which saw Wayne compile an 11-2 record. Yet as he entered his senior season, Landers wasn’t even lightly recruited enough to be considered lightly recruited.
“He didn’t have a whole bunch going on,” Minton said of Landers’ recruitment. “There were just guys that couldn’t get past that he’s about 6-1. Some people were saying that he’s just too short.”
It also didn’t help that when it came to academics, as Minton put it, “he didn’t knock the grades off the charts,” something the Wayne head coach attributed to the added responsibility that came with helping care for his younger brothers, Trey and Tallice, after their father, Robert Sr., was shot and killed when Robert Jr. was 10 years old.
“Robert was a man in high school,” Minton said. “He was a young man that did a lot. He matured, but in a different way. He did a lot for his family. He had to do a lot more than most young men would have to do.”
Between the questions about his size and his inconsistent grades, Landers was beginning to look like a high-risk, low-reward proposition for college programs. Why take a player who may not even make the grade if his size is going to limit his upside anyway?
Nevertheless, Landers remained determined to land a scholarship offer, driven by the motivation of his mom, Tracy Matthews, not needing to pay for his college. And while he grew up watching the home-state Buckeyes, he was willing to go anywhere necessary to meet his goal.
“Football’s football, no matter where you go,” Landers said. “Yes, some programs are better than others, but the biggest thing was getting a free education so my mom didn’t have to worry about it.”
‘If I can play, then I can play’
Who is Robert Landers?
“One thing about me growing up is I was always raised to believe that you don’t own much but your word and your name,” he says.
So when the offer from Ohio State he so desperately coveted finally came, it was actually bittersweet. Three months before Fickell made the 70-minute drive from Columbus to Huber Heights to extend a scholarship offer to the class of 2015’s 476th-ranked player, West Virginia had already beaten the Buckeyes to the punch, inviting Landers for a visit after an impressive showing in Wayne’s 45-3 win over Miamisburg that September.
A week later, Landers made his first trip to Morgantown, accepting a scholarship offer from the Mountaineers on the spot. His dream of having college paid for had finally been realized, but Landers was hardly satisfied.
“I played with a chip on my shoulder,” he said of his senior season. “I always did, but at that point in time, it was even worse just because I felt like I had something to prove. I was hearing from a lot of colleges, ‘You can play, but you’re undersized.’
“Well if I can play, then I can play.”
A second-team all-state selection, Landers proved that and then some in the Warriors’ playoff run, which led to the calls to Fickell from opposing coaches.
“He had dominating games in each of those games,” said Minton. “After that playoff run, it really solidified everything for everybody and they saw what he could do on that kind of stage.”
Six days after Wayne fell to St. Edward in the state title game, Fickell and OSU assistant Tim Hinton headed to Huber Heights for an impromptu meeting with Landers and Minton. After analyzing his film and getting the go-ahead from Meyer, Fickell extended a scholarship offer to Landers and encouraged him to take an official visit to Columbus that very night, with the dead period of the recruiting calendar about to kick in.
“I called my mom and I told her I got an offer from Ohio State and she was like, ‘Stop playing,’ ” Landers says now with a laugh. “I was like, ‘I’m dead serious. They want me to take my official (visit) tonight.’ She was like, ‘I get off work in a couple of hours and we’ll go up.’ ”
Unlike his experience with West Virginia, however, Landers didn’t commit right away. For as excited as he was to be just an hour’s drive away from his close-knit family, a part of him felt loyal to the Mountaineers for being the first team to truly take a chance on him.
Sleepless nights ensued. So did heartfelt talks with his mom, grandfather and Minton.
“He just said, ‘Coach, I committed to them. I committed to West Virginia. I gave them my word. How do you do that?’ ” Minton recalls of his conversations with Landers at the time.
Nevertheless, four days later, Landers flipped. “That was his dream. That was one of his lifelong goals, was to be an Ohio State Buckeye,” Minton says.
The sales pitch he received from the head coach on his short-notice visit didn’t hurt either.”One thing I can say about Ohio State is, it’s hard to say no to coach Meyer,” Landers says with a smile. “It really is.”
‘Welcome to Ohio State’
Who is Robert Landers?
“Oh, that’s BB,” says Buckeyes defensive end Tyquan Lewis, referencing Landers’ longtime nickname, which pays homage to his late father, who was often referred to as “Bobby” or “Bo.”
But before the mere mention of his name could bring an instant smile to his teammates’ faces as it does now, “BB” was just another freshman trying to get by at Ohio State.
His first fall camp was rough, as it often is for freshmen in Columbus. Landers still remembers one play in particular from that August, where he found himself double-teamed by future first-round pick left tackle Taylor Decker and the strongest man in the Buckeyes’ locker room, left guard Billy Price.
“They drove me 5 yards and dumped me into the linebacker,” he recalls. “That was the worst experience of my life.
“I’ll never forget Taylor said, ‘Welcome to Ohio State.’ ”
By the second week of camp, he was questioning whether he was cut out for Ohio State, staying up late for 90-minute heart-to-hearts with Buckeyes veteran defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle, who assured him, “If you weren’t good enough for this program, you wouldn’t be here.”
“That’s when I had to resort back to ‘Why do I do what I do?’ ” Landers says.
For Landers, his ‘why?’ is his mom and two brothers, as well as the memory of Robert Sr., whose name he has tattooed on the inside of his arm. That’s what got him through his redshirt season a year ago, when he felt overwhelmed just standing on the sideline of a road game at Virginia Tech, and helped pave the way for the early success he’s found in 2016.
“Every night I pray and talk to him. I know he’s looking over me,” Landers says of his late father. “He’d probably be the most excited person ever.”
At this point, Landers isn’t close to a finished product — according to the Buckeyes depth chart, he isn’t even a starter, but rather a quicker change-of-pace option for the more prototypical Ohio State defensive tackle, 6-3, 305-pound Michael Hill. Landers might not have even gotten his chance to shine this season had Sprinkle not torn his right patellar tendon in the Buckeyes’ season opener.
As a situational nose guard whose primary objective is to take up blocks for his more physically gifted teammates, there’s not supposed to be a more anonymous player on the Ohio State defense. Yet despite being “gravitationally challenged,” as his position coach puts it, Landers has successfully slipped into opposing backfields more often than any of his more highly touted teammates so far this season.
He may just look like an average person — perhaps not even a football player — but there’s a reason those reporters flocked to him as his head coach stood by in amazement.
What a country, indeed.