COLUMBUS — When Urban Meyer faces Michigan nemesis Brady Hoke for the first time Saturday, the coach and his Ohio State football team will have more at stake than a perfect season.
A win also would provide momentum in the game after The Game: the competition for Ohio’s top recruits.
While the lineage of border-crossing Ohioans to play football at Michigan is age old, the white-knuckle recruiting rivalry that plays out the other 364 days of the year is at a level not seen in decades as Meyer and Hoke, a Kettering native, relentlessly pursue the same elite prospects.
“It’s definitely as hot as it’s been since we’ve been covering recruiting,” said Allen Trieu, a Midwest recruiting analyst for Scout.com, noting the industry’s rise in the 1990s.
On the field and on signing day, OSU had pulled away from Michigan — its historic main competition for Ohio recruits — for the better part of the past decade. According to Rivals.com, the Buckeyes secured five of the top eight in-state recruits in six of former coach Jim Tressel’s last eight classes (2004-2011), while Michigan signed just four top-five Ohio recruits over the same span.
But the NCAA sanctions that rocked Ohio State combined with the arrival of Hoke last season kicked open the door for Michigan.
UM signed two of the top five Ohio recruits in the 2012 class, including top-ranked offensive lineman Kyle Kalis from Lakewood, and is coming on heavier in 2013. The Wolverines have commitments from two of the top five and six of the top 15 Ohio recruits, including Trotwood-Madison linebacker Mike McCray, son of the former Buckeyes captain by the same name.
In 2007, the Wolverines did not land a single player among Ohio’s top 40 prospects. In the 2013 class, they have nine.
“[Hoke] made no bones about it,” said Marlington coach Ed Miley, whose star defensive back, Dymonte Thomas, is a senior committed to Michigan. “He’s going to try to get the best players out of Ohio.”
All the while, Meyer wants to keep them home — and is enjoying a wave of early success in his native state.
Backed by eight of nine assistants with Ohio roots, he landed four of the top seven in-state recruits in the 2012 class — including five-star defensive end Adolphus Washington from Cincinnati — and the top two in 2013 (defensive back Cameron Burrows from Trotwood-Madison and athlete Jalin Marshall from Middletown). Ohio State’s 2012 class was ranked fourth by Rivals.com, while its 2013 collection is eighth. (Michigan’s hauls are ranked seventh and fifth, respectively.)
What does this new blood mean? Perhaps the best recruiting battle between any two schools for one state’s recruits is in our backyard.
Maurice Douglass, an 11-year NFL veteran in his 12th season coaching Dayton-area power Trotwood-Madison, said he has never seen the rivals battle so intensely for Ohio recruits. He noted Michigan before Hoke recruited primarily northern Ohio, including Toledo. Now, the entire state is in play.
Both Meyer and Hoke have gone on the offensive.
Speaking at the Ohio State High School Football Coaches Association clinic in February, Meyer told the gathering, “We’re all in this together.”
“You’ve got a question? The answer is yes,” he said. “Come on down, the doors are open, sit in a meeting. There’s a couple coaches [upset] that we recruited some in-state guys [committed elsewhere] to stay home. I’ve got news: We’re going to recruit him harder to say home. For those guys [upset], here’s a little message: We’re going to come at you even harder. You’re not going to leave Ohio if we can do anything about it. I believe in Ohio. This is my home.”
Hoke, meanwhile, preaches with the same fire. He is committed to mining Ohio, which on average produces more than twice as many Division I recruits than Michigan and has bred Wolverines stars Charles Woodson, Desmond Howard, Jim Harbaugh, Elvis Grbac, Jim Mandich, and Dan Dierdorf among legions of others.
“[Meyer] has been very visible with the state coaches association, but the interesting thing is, so has coach Hoke,” Miley said,
The speaker at the Ohio coaches clinic before Meyer? Hoke.
“You look at the population of the state and the number of high schools that play football in the state, you look at the passion, you look at how well the coaching is in the state,” said Hoke, whose Michigan roster includes 25 Ohio natives. “I’m from that state so I understand it, and it's always going to be a big part of what we do. We're going to recruit our state heavily and the state of Ohio. Those are our main two areas.”
Finally, on Saturday, the battle will shift from living rooms and Friday nights to sold-out Ohio Stadium, where Meyer and the Buckeyes will look for a victory that would resonate long after the final whistle.
“If one team can string together some wins and string together some recruiting wins, you may see one side or the other pull away,” Trieu said. “But right now, I don’t see that happening. It’s the perfect storm for these recruiting battles to come. I don’t necessarily see one team running away with the top recruits again. At least the next couple of years.”
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.