COLUMBUS, Ohio -- On National Signing Day 2013, Vonn Bell announced he would join the Ohio State football program. Unofficially, he declared his intentions long before that. The coveted safety prospect from Rossville, Ga., pinged a few members of the incoming Buckeyes class, the first group coach Urban Meyer and company would ink after a full recruiting cycle, and he established the parameters of what they would accomplish. Bell latched on to the notion that Meyer won titles every two years wherever he was -- not precisely true, but close enough -- and set about teaching his teammates to see the future.
“We had a vision,” Bell says. “We wanted to bring championships to this program. We wanted to be the best class to come into this program. We had a vision. We’re living up to it now, I guess.”
A smile crossed the sophomore’s face as he sat in the vast expanse of the Woody Hayes athletic complex, maybe because he knows there is no guesswork in that assessment. No day arguably meant more to Meyer’s revival of the Ohio State program and its rise to the national championship game against Oregon than Feb. 6, 2013. It was on that day the Buckeyes welcomed what was considered the nation’s consensus No. 2 recruiting haul. If possible, this seems like a gross underestimation. From a Heisman Trophy candidate to a defensive superstar to breakout performers that keyed a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, the recruiting class of ’13 juiced this Buckeyes run. It’s a group that combines high-end talent with an apparent hard-nosed approach and, much to the dismay of the rest of the Big Ten and beyond, sets up the program for sustained success at this level.
There is defensive end Joey Bosa, the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year this season. There is quarterback J.T. Barrett, the precocious sub for injured starter Braxton Miller who finished fifth in Heisman voting. There are the two team MVPs from the Sugar Bowl: Tailback Ezekiel Elliott, whose 85-yard touchdown run buried Alabama in New Orleans, and linebacker Darron Lee, who had three tackles for loss against the Crimson Tide, upping his season total to 16.5, second only to Bosa’s 20. There is Bell, the second-leading tackler and team leader with six interceptions. There are starters and key contributors like all-purpose threat Jalin Marshall, cornerback Eli Apple and offensive guard Billy Price.
“What they’ve done is ridiculous,” senior defensive tackle Michael Bennett says. “It’s hard to understand how these sophomores and redshirt freshmen can go do what they do.”
The class is comprised 18 four- or five-star prospects, so breathless amazement at its contributions is unwarranted. But the importance of those accomplishments can't be exaggerated. The only man to express any dissatisfaction with the group is the one ultimately responsible for closing the deal on top-shelf talent, and Meyer only felt that way because the Buckeyes couldn’t find a way to thrust more of that group into the mix last season. At the team’s pre-title game campus media day Tuesday, the first words out of the Ohio State coach’s mouth regarding the 2013 recruits were: “Really disappointed we didn’t play them.”
Meyer recalled listening to Pete Carroll speak about recruiting philosophy at USC in 2006, and the message stuck with him: The Trojans didn’t recruit guys to redshirt and develop them. They recruited kids to play. Last year, in Meyer’s estimation, Ohio State redshirted too many talented players because they weren’t ready. “So I was disappointed that they didn’t play more their first year, because there was a handful of those guys that redshirted, and some of those guys won’t be here for their fifth year,” Meyer says. “So we screwed up. We didn’t get another year out of them.”
There will be long-term benefits nevertheless.
If there is truth to the upperclassmen appraisals of the second-year players on the roster -- if they’re not just spewing sunny bromides about teammates -- then this is a group whose talent is perhaps only exceeded by its capacity to work. There is evidently scant entitlement in a couple dozen players who would have reason to feel entitled. That attitude seeps into the pores of a team and sets a standard for years to come. When Meyer talks about program “alignment” at all levels contributing to title runs, an approach like that serves as a guide bar, preventing things from careening off-course.
“They like to work. They like to grind. They like to get extra lifts in. All that stuff,” Bennett says. “It’s not a task for them to work hard. It’s not a task for them to do another sprint. They’re going to be the first guys in line, they’re going to run as hard as they can, and they’re going get back in the line. That’s a lot to expect out of a young guy, and they’ve embraced it.”
Some of the members of this group were bound to impress sooner than later, such as the quarterback-devouring Bosa, who has 13.5 sacks heading into the Oregon game. “He did some things in practice, it was like, oh my God, I can’t believe he’s making everybody look this bad,” linebacker Tyvis Powell said of the defensive end’s early workouts. Or as offensive tackle Taylor Decker put it, “He’s just a freak. He’s just blessed.” Still, everyone hurries to note Bosa’s ceaseless motor, which aligns with the rest of the group. In fact, the players for whom success came less instantly -- including Bosa’s roommates -- drive Ohio State forward just as much.
For one, Barrett spent a year as an apprentice to Miller and was not expected to take a meaningful snap in 2014. “J.T. had a lot of leadership qualities to him,” Bennett says, “but I didn’t see him as, ‘Next year, he’s going to be the starting QB and do what he did.’” That was, of course, 2,834 passing yards and 45 total touchdowns before he broke his leg in the regular-season finale against Michigan. More startling was the rise of Lee, a 6-foot-2, 228-pounder out of New Albany, Ohio, who was a high school quarterback and barely scraped his way into the class of ’13. Lee recalled attending Ohio State’s junior day and lingering on the outskirts of the action, barely detected as Meyer carried on conversations with the likes of future Buckeyes safety Cam Burrows. “Coach Meyer didn’t even look at me,” Lee says, “and I was walking beside him for a good minute.”
Lee attended multiple Ohio State camps before receiving a scholarship offer -- “I rejected him probably four times,” Meyer says. “Shows you how good an evaluator I am” -- that he can still recall coming on a Wednesday after a weightlifting session at his high school. He became one of the freshman redshirts before turning to Bosa before spring practice and stating unequivocally that he would replace the graduated Ryan Shazier at linebacker.
“I was like, yeah, whatever,” Bosa says. “And then he came out in spring and started killing it.”
Lee has thus far totaled 73 tackles, 7.5 sacks, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. With a matter-of-fact resignation, he says his “life story” is working for what he gets. But that story is emblematic of the class that may define the future of Ohio State football: entirely sure he can contribute and entirely comfortable with exerting the effort necessary to prove it.
“I always thought, hey, if you come here, you get big, you’re at your weight, you learn the playbook, you just go out and make plays,” Lee says. “I feel that’s how it works. I guess according to a lot of people on the outside, we’re not supposed to be doing this yet.”
It was after the Orange Bowl loss to Clemson last winter that Bell believed it was time for his pre-Signing Day vision to morph into reality. The safety felt the fall of 2014 would belong to the class of ’13, and he appears to be the sort of person who ought to play the lottery more often. Many players who have defined the Buckeyes’ present, and who will shape the team’s chances in AT&T Stadium on Monday, were not even on campus 23 months ago.
And thus they should define the future as well, as a talented but hard-driving crew with plenty of time left for more. “I don’t really know in other programs, but it seems to be the culture here, to come in and you’re ready to play and you’re not looking to wait around for years,” Bosa says. “You’re looking to play and make an impact. And obviously the final goal is to win championships.”
To find a problem with this group, you have to search all the way to Bosa’s car, which he left at the football complex before embarking on an awards circuit tour in December. Upon his return, the car wouldn’t start. On Tuesday, he was waiting for Elliott’s father to bring it into the shop for repairs. It figured: Even when a member of that precocious recruiting haul of 2013 runs into trouble, one of his classmates is there to help keep things humming.