COLUMBUS — Damon Webb grew up hailing "The Victors," his coach at Detroit’s Cass Tech was a running back for Michigan, and three of his high school teammates signed to play for the Wolverines this month.
But if all signs pointed toward blue for the coveted cornerback, Webb had a surprising recent announcement.
The 6-foot, 175-pound junior ranked among the nation’s top prospects not only spurned Michigan but committed to its fiercest rival 13 months before next year’s signing day.
"He was a kid who grew up a Michigan fan, so you’d think a guy who’s going to make an early decision, it would be [UM]," Rivals.com recruiting analyst Josh Helmholdt said of Webb’s commitment to Ohio State. "With it being the biggest rival, it's usually after a long, hard-fought recruiting battle."
Instead, Webb is one of two Michigan natives along with four-star Southfield defensive end Lawrence Marshall to commit to OSU’s class of 2014, though Marshall confirmed to several recruiting services late Wednesday night he is reopening his recruitment.
It is part of a relentless effort by Buckeyes coaches to mine a state the program has traditionally overlooked — and a personal matter, too. With Michigan only strengthening its traditional inroads in Ohio under coach Brady Hoke — the Wolverines have signed 18 Ohioans in their last two classes — OSU’s Urban Meyer does not intend to let those raids go unanswered.
The Buckeyes are leaving no land up north unturned, which reached the point of comedy last week when even a kicker pledged to his home-state Wolverines posted on Twitter that Ohio State had just called. J.J. McGrath, a Macomb, Mich., native, plans to join the Wolverines this fall as a walk-on. They have also reportedly offered scholarships to and are in the running for Detroit defensive lineman Malik McDowell, the top prospect in Michigan, and Grand Rapids receiver Drake Harris, a Michigan State commit.
"Ohio State is trying to make a point that if Michigan is going to recruit Ohio, then they're going to recruit Michigan," Scout.com analyst Allen Trieu said. "They realize that's not only a place that they can get good talent, but they're also taking it to their top rival."
Former coach Jim Tressel signed six players from Michigan during his 10 years in Columbus, focusing the program’s efforts primarily on Ohio — a state that on average produces more than twice as many Division I prospects than Michigan — and branching out to Florida, Pennsylvania, and Georgia.
But Meyer, who has recruited back-to-back top-5 classes to OSU, seems bent on adding Michigan to that priority list. After Hoke spoke at the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association clinic in Columbus last winter, Meyer expressed interest to Michigan high school coaches of appearing at a similar event up north. Meyer and his entire staff also joined Hoke at a football clinic in Southfield last summer.
"I got up at 3:30 in the morning to drive just under four hours here for a lot of reasons," Meyer told the campers. "The most important reason is this: I want you guys to see Ohio State in this part of the country."
On recruiting Michigan, he said, "If we have not, we will."
Southfield coach Tim Conley has seen the evolution. Ohio State recruited a former player, defensive tackle Gabe Watson, who went to Michigan and was a fourth-round pick in the 2006 NFL draft. But he said the Buckeyes’ effort did not compare to the work they put in to recruiting Marshall, who committed to OSU last weekend before having second thoughts. While Michigan and Michigan State offered Marshall a scholarship before OSU, Meyer, defensive line coach Mike Vrabel, and area recruiter Kerry Coombs came on relentlessly. The Buckeyes are still squarely in the running.
"Whatever the rules say — you can visit once a week, the head coach can come on this day, the [player] can come down for a visit — they've been on the spot and done all that stuff on the first day," Conley said. "As far as the Ohio State coaching staff, and what they're doing up here, they absolutely have been the most persistent and done the most. They've been the hardest recruiters out of all the other schools."
Meanwhile, Cass Tech coach Thomas Wilcher, who played football at Michigan, said the Buckeyes’ staff pursued Webb with the same vigor as everyone else. But in any case, the coup represented a loud shot across the Wolverines’ bow. Webb is ranked among the top 35 players nationally.
It’s the kind of score Hoke will be bent on answering ... in Ohio.
"To be able to come onto your opponents’ turf, philosophically, that carries onto the field," Trieu said. "It says, ‘We’re not backing off these guys.’ It’s taken the rivalry to an even higher level."
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.