THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH Enlarge
COLUMBUS — Johnnie Dixon could have played football for any of the southern powers.
Miami. Florida State. Auburn. Alabama.
All were enticing options as the scholarship offers poured into the four-star wide receiver’s home in West Palm Beach, Fla. Miami was just down the road while the others were hot schools beyond their weather — the winners of the last five national championships.
Yet when it came time for Dixon to announce his college decision in December, there was something that only one of his favored suitors could truly offer.
"I realized I didn’t want to be home anymore," he said after slipping on an Ohio State cap. "You’ve got to explore the world."
For the Buckeyes, it may as well be their new adage. Ohio State too is exploring the world like never before as the school’s national cachet broadens under coach Urban Meyer.
On Wednesday, Ohio State will sign a second straight class with more out-of-state prospects than Ohioans for the first time in program history. In all, after signing 14 non-Ohio natives in a 24-member class last year, 13 of its 22 commits this year hail from beyond state lines.
It is a shift for a program that has been Ohio-made since the start of time, from the dozen or so founding players in 1890 to the close-the-borders teams of Woody Hayes — more than 85 percent of OSU's 1968 national championship team came from the Buckeye State. Even in recent years, the trend continued. Ohioans accounted for 60 percent (138 of 230) of the Buckeyes’ scholarship commitments in their 2002 through 2012 recruiting classes.
Yet the game is changing.
With Meyer’s drawing power, the recent hire of ace Penn State recruiter Larry Johnson, Sr., underscoring the staff’s growing reach, and a shifting landscape, Ohio State is enjoying the best of two worlds — securing the top players in Ohio while increasingly cherry-picking the nation.
OSU received commitments this year from the top six players in Ohio, as ranked by Scout.com, then aggressively fanned out. The class includes five-star linebacker Raekwon McMillan of Hinesville, Ga., and spans from Fort Worth to Sparta, N.J., with 10 states represented in between.
As it stands, the haul is ranked second nationally by Rivals.com and third by Scout. OSU’s class last year came in second and first, respectively.
"[Former OSU coaches] Jim Tressel and John Cooper did a great job when it came to recruiting Ohio, and they went into Florida a little bit. But Urban Meyer has extended the reach from coast to coast," said Tom Lemming, a national recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network. "Ohio State already had a brand name. Urban himself has his own brand name. Why not expand your reach?
"He's not going to take the fringe good players from Ohio anymore, and that's the difference from the past. Both [Meyer and Tressel] went after the great Ohio players. But Tressel and Cooper and Earle Bruce would go after the fringe good players because they were local and wanted to show loyalty."
Said Scout analyst Allen Trieu: "[Ohio State’s] thinking is that if we can get top kids from other states, maybe we don’t need to dig as deep in our backyard."
Not that Meyer stands accused of turning his back on Ohio. The Ashtabula native talks often about the importance of keeping the best native players in state, and Ohio high school coaches believe he is walking the walk. Meyer welcomes them to practices, speaks at their state meetings, and counts two of their former brethren among his assistants. Tight ends coach Tim Hinton was a longtime coach at Marion Harding, while cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs led Cincinnati Colerain to a Division I state title in 2004.
Meyer knows recruiting must begin in Ohio, in this football-mad state that endures as a holdout to the South’s growing monopoly on elite high school players. This year, Ohio is fifth behind California, Texas, Florida, and Georgia with 142 senior football players already committed to Football Bowl Subdivision schools — including 84 to BCS programs. (Louisiana is sixth with 87 commits).
OSU is set to sign the most heralded of the lot, with Cincinnati Moeller linebacker Sam Hubbard and Cleveland Glenville safety Erick Smith headlining the six Horseshoe-bound Ohio natives ranked among the nation’s top 100 prospects by Scout.
"I think if you’re an outstanding football player in Ohio, Ohio State’s going to get you," said Lima Senior coach Mike Fell, the outgoing president of the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association. "I still think there’s a strong commitment from Ohio State."
The difference now is the increasing commitment elsewhere too.
Coaches and analysts point foremost to Meyer’s star power and connections. His past stops include Notre Dame, Bowling Green State University, Utah, and Florida, where he won two national titles. In the Class of 2015, Ohio State has extended more than twice as many scholarship offers to prospects from Florida (31) than those from the entire Midwest combined (13), according to data from 247Sports.com.
No terrain is off limits. The Buckeyes landed the top-ranked prospect in Texas last year — Plano linebacker Mike Mitchell — beat Alabama and Georgia for McMillan this year, and have successfully forayed deep into enemy territory. Cornerback Damon Webb, a a consensus top-50 overall prospect from Detroit’s Cass Tech, is committed to Ohio State, while the only Michigan native ranked higher counts the Buckeyes among his finalists. Malik McDowell, a five-star defensive lineman from Southfield, Mich., will choose this week between OSU, Michigan, Michigan State, and Florida State.
The Buckeyes are also doubling down on efforts to mine the East Coast, reflected in the hire of Johnson as defensive line coach. Johnson was named by Rivals the national recruiter of the year in 2006, particularly for the inroads he made in Washington, D.C., and Maryland, where he was a high school coach before joining the late Joe Paterno's staff in 1996.
"He gives [OSU] Penn State's top recruiter, which is shocking to me," Lemming said. "[New Penn State coach James Franklin] would have died to keep him there. But I know Larry was hurt not getting a sniff at the [head coaching] position. Penn State's loss is Ohio State's massive gain."
Among Johnson’s biggest pelts at PSU was wide receiver Derrick Williams, the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2005. Rick Houchens, who coached Williams at Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt, Md., said "the respect factor is off the charts in any high school that Larry walks into around here."
"It's going to be a turf war here," said Houchens, now the coach at Archbishop Carroll in D.C. "Other than Mike Locksley at the University of Maryland, Larry has been hands-down the top recruiter in our region for consistently the last 12 years. That is not going to change, and if anything, I think he will take it to a higher level because of his affiliation now with Ohio State.
"He still was a top recruiter in Penn State’s off years. At Ohio State, they're poised and ready to strike for a national championship, so Larry now has that in his arsenal. And he’s representing Urban Meyer. If you're a player and you've got Larry Johnson and Urban Meyer coming into your school versus James Franklin and one of his guys ... who's going to have the edge? Franklin, he'll do some great things up there. He's a high-motor guy. But if it comes down to him getting the elite guys [over OSU], I don't think that's going to happen."
"Ohio State just took a huge jump," he added. "Not that they needed one."