Ohio State didn’t just build a juggernaut because Urban Meyer was a good coach. Meyer proved over 13 years as an assistant and 17 leading his own programs that few could match his recruiting prowess.
The national recruiting rankings for his Florida and Ohio State teams tell the story: 18, 2, 1, 3, 11, 2, 4, 2, 3, 9, 3, 2, 2. The win totals only reinforce Meyer’s ability evaluate talent: 9, 13, 9, 13, 13, 8, 12, 12, 14, 12, 11, 12, 12. And don’t forget about the three national championships.
Meyer and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith were effusive in their praise of soon-to-be head coach Ryan Day, showering him with plaudits, acclaim, and everything short of throwing rose petals at his feet. And Day, a 39-year-old whiz kid offensive coordinator, could leave in 23 years with more wins than Woody Hayes. But the current reality is Ohio State’s recruiting will take a slide.
“There’s no way to lose a coach with Meyer’s reputation and history without suffering some drop-off,” said Jeremy Birmingham, a recruiting analyst at LettermenRow.com. “But [Day’s] knowledge of Ohio State and the way Urban Meyer has built that program will provide some much-needed comfort for the kids the program has identified. Day had a very good audition, but will need to prove himself as a coach early next season if he wants the momentum to continue.”
Four-star defensive back Lejond Cavazos decommitted from Ohio State’s 2020 recruiting class Tuesday night, just hours after Day was introduced as the new coach. In a tweet announcing his decision, Cavazos said he was “shocked” about Meyer’s retirement while explaining that the Buckeyes remain an option, “but I feel the need to explore my options and take a closer look at other universities.”
On Wednesday, Jake Wray, a four-star offensive lineman and member of the 2020 class, followed Cavazos out the door, tweeting, “As the program adjusts, I need to decommit and reevaluate my recruitment.”
Ohio State’s 2019 class is currently ranked 18th nationally — the early signing period is Dec. 19 — and without a five-star commit. The previous time it didn’t have a five-star was 2015. Only two players committed after the Zach Smith scandal, and only one pledged to the Buckeyes once rumblings about Meyer’s future became constant.
Characterizing Tuesday’s recruiting news as dire, however, would be incorrect. Twenty-two minutes after Meyer’s retirement became public, Garrett Wilson, a four-star wide receiver from Texas and one of the crown jewels of the 2019 class, tweeted that he is “1000 percent committed to Ohio State University.” It started an assembly line of recruits who said their commitment to the Buckeyes remained strong.
Retirement has been on Meyer’s mind for more than a year, and Tuesday’s decision felt inevitable. Pushing it over the top was conversations with recruits who asked Meyer if he would be their coach four or five years from now. The answer just couldn’t be yes.
“Ryan’s going to be in four states tomorrow, I imagine. He better be,” Meyer said. “We lost a week of recruiting [because of the Big Ten championship game]. The signing date is coming up, and over 92 percent of the kids sign on that date.
“If you sign a scholarship and the coach decides to leave after that, they’re free to go. People will say, ‘Why would you let recruiting get in the way?’ That’s a silly question. That’s the lifeblood. You want to have a good team you recruit, and you recruit very hard. To be honest, I didn’t want to mislead recruits.”
In two seasons as the offensive coordinator, Day established himself as an ace recruiter, securing commitments from some of the biggest fish in OSU’s 2017, 2018, and 2019 recruiting classes. Many believe Day is the best recruiter on the staff.
“I can tell you that when we met Ryan, he was as down to earth as you could possibly imagine. He was very upfront and honest with our kids,” said Lake Travis coach Hank Carter, who coached two OSU commits, Wilson and quarterback Matthew Baldwin. “We’ve been impressed with him and, obviously, he did a great job with the offense this season at Ohio State.
“From what I can see, he’s had a great deal of success at every level. I’ve been impressed with him as an individual. He’s been extremely professional, upfront, and thoughtful. I would imagine the train will keep rolling.”
A funny moment arose during Tuesday’s news conference when Meyer and Day were asked a question about the recruiting plan for December. Day paused, looked at Meyer, and deferred.
“Ryan will be the head coach out recruiting,” Meyer said. “I’ll visit with recruits on campus and then I’ll have conversations with them if they feel necessary because I’m still really close with [the 2019] class.”
The recruiting strategy changed significantly the day Meyer was hired. The focus shifted from securing an Ohio-heavy class to scouring the nation for the best players and then cherry-picking Ohio players. All but one class under Meyer at Ohio State — his first — had more out-of-state players than in-state. He had the cache to walk into any living room in America, and the recruit sitting on the couch was probably going to put the Buckeyes in his top three.
Day hasn’t reached that echelon yet, but he has positive approval ratings in places such as Texas, Georgia, and throughout the Southeast. He’ll also have longtime Meyer recruiting maestro Mark Pantoni on the staff. Still, the Jim Tressel formula of signing Ohio’s best players and filling out the rest of a class with a handful of blue-chippers from Florida, California, Texas, Georgia, etc., could return under Day’s leadership.
“He’s not Nick Saban or Jim Harbaugh, but he’s not going to be selling a rebuild either,” Birmingham said. “He’s representing Ohio State, and he knows what that means. I do think the program will try and accelerate their evaluations with in-state players because it’s a weakness that Michigan State and Kentucky have exploited for the last handful of years and one that Michigan and Notre Dame are beginning to take advantage of as well. That has to change.”
In his remarks Tuesday, Day made sure to extend a welcoming hand to Ohio’s high school football coaches, a shrewd gesture that Meyer performed seven years ago.
“We have the best coaches and some of the best high school programs in all of America here in Ohio,” Day said. “It will continue to be our first priority to recruit Ohio football players. Every young football player in the state of Ohio should dream about one day becoming a Buckeye. It’s our staff’s responsibility to make sure we recruit them at the highest level.”
Only three of OSU’s 15 verbal commitments for the class of 2019 are from Ohio. Two attend Mentor High School — four-star defensive end Noah Potter and three-star offensive lineman Ryan Jacoby. Their coach, Steve Trivisonno, one of the top coaches in the state, talked to Day on Wednesday and came away with a positive impression.
“What an impressive person,” he said. “He’s fired up about Ohio, fired up about the program. The transition will be good. He’s not Urban, but he’s got to be himself. I’m very impressed, very pleased, and I know our kids are as well.
“If there’s a great kid in Ohio, you can’t let him get out. You still have to get Ohio guys, and then balance it with other guys around the country that are going to make you win national championships. That’s ultimately what we expect in this state.”