On the brink of announcing the most significant decision of his life, Zach Harrison briefly fumbled with a zipper. Harrison, the five-star defensive end prospect choosing among Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan, stood behind a podium in front of hundreds of classmates gathered at his high school’s auditorium on Wednesday prepared for his big reveal. “It’s been a long process, but I’ve decided to continue my academic and football career at, uh,” Harrison said, grabbing the top zipper of his hooded jacket and yanking it down to reveal a scarlet T-shirt, “THE Ohio State University!”
Harrison’s commitment on Day 1 of the early signing period reminds us all that OSU, with or without Urban Meyer, can win the biggest Midwest recruiting battles with its Big Ten neighbors. Harrison provided new coach Ryan Day with a much-needed jolt after a pair of defections, quelled fear that the Buckeyes’ class would come crumbling down because of Meyer’s retirement, and has OSU in position to complete one of the nation’s best signing groups come February. In all, Ohio State signed 15 players on Wednesday, grabbing a pair of non-committed guys (Harrison and three-star defensive tackle Jaden McKenzie) while losing two commitments to the SEC (defensive back Jordan Battle to Alabama and quarterback Dwan Mathis to Georgia).
The former was expected (Battle flirted with the Tide for a while). The latter was not (Mathis didn’t even visit UGA). Mathis served as the lone quarterback commit in OSU’s class, leaving Day in scramble mode ahead of the traditional signing date in February. The move left many shocked and looking for answers. Was this because of Urban!? No, many assumed Mathis’ flip involved OSU’s reported pursuit of Georgia transfer quarterback Justin Fields. It did involve Fields, Mathis told the Detroit Free Press, but it had nothing to do with the Buckeyes’ pursuit of him. Fields’ departure from UGA’s roster opened a spot for Mathis. “I’ve been wavering back and forth for the last couple of days,’’ he said. “I decided to go to Georgia because my chances of playing.’’ And, thus, the next six weeks for Day is to find a quarterback. Many expect starter Dwayne Haskins to turn pro, leaving the Buckeyes with just two returning scholarship quarterbacks in 2019, Tate Martell and Matthew Baldwin. That’s two QBs short of the number Day prefers to keep on his roster.
Meanwhile, Ohio State snatched Harrison in one of the bigger signing-day decisions Wednesday, wrestling the talented end from North Columbus away from James Franklin and Jim Harbaugh. OSU still owns this territory, even with a new leader. The Buckeyes signed more five stars (3) than Michigan and Penn State combined (2). And while their overall team ranking (12th) trails the No. 7 Wolverines and 10th-ranked Nittany Lions, the class’ quality is no slouch. In fact, according to 247Sports, OSU’s group has the third-best individual player rating, as Day noted in his opening comments to reporters Wednesday. Ohio State’s 16 ranked commitments are two fewer than PSU and 11 fewer than Michigan’s group of 27. Day’s roster spots are limited for this signing class because of a small departing senior class. In order to stay under the NCAA scholarship limit of 85, the Buckeyes won’t bring in a full 25. No matter, says Meyer, this class is “great.”
“Recruiting is all about being genuine and caring deeply for a player,” the out-going coach said in an interview on Big Ten Network. “Ryan has been a part of that. He’s embraced it and he’s great at it.” Recruiting is the lifeblood of any college program, and so concerns over OSU’s 2019 class were real given this hectic fall, from the emergence of the Zach Smith scandal in August to Meyer’s retirement two weeks ago. In all, the Buckeyes lost four commitments, counting the two flips Wednesday and the two earlier this fall (inside linebacker Kane Patterson signed with Clemson, and running back Sampson James signed with Indiana). “Everyone has de-commits,” says Steve Wiltfong, director of recruiting for 247Sports. “Urban would have defections too.”
In fact, a year ago at this time, Ohio State lost three commitments in LB Brenton Cox (Georgia), QB Emory Jones (Florida) and S Jaiden Woodbey (Florida State). At least one former major college head coach believes it's a positive that Meyer is out-going given the Smith scandal. “If I was recruiting against him, I’d go into mom's house 'You think that guy can tell the truth? He's the biggest liar in college football,’” the ex-coach told Sports Illustrated under the condition of anonymity. “Other coaches are going to be able to hammer him. Thing is, kids beg to go to Ohio State. You can put whoever as head coach.”
Time will tell if that’s true. Meyer’s recruiting success in Columbus runs deep. In his seven years, the Buckeyes have finished no worse than seventh in 247Sports’ composite team recruiting rankings, and they were No. 2 in each 2018 and 2017. “Urban is one of the greatest head coach recruits of all time. He was a rock star,” Wiltfong says. “He’s famous. Recruits gravitated to him. No head coach put in more time courting kids. Urban Meyer didn’t need an introduction. Ryan Day walks in the room right now and my wife doesn’t know who he is, but there was a time people didn’t know who Urban was.”
Day’s first class Wednesday lacks the top-five ranking, mostly because of quantity, but it does have big fish. The Buckeyes kept home the best player in the state, Harrison, and he joins two other five-star players that OSU plucked from Georgia and Texas. The three words in Harrison’s announcement graphic he tweeted Wednesday punctuated OSU’s first Meyer-less signing day in eight years with an exclamation point. “I’m stayin home.”