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Gant joins exclusive club at Ohio State

05/18/2017, 12:24am EDT
By By DAVID BRIGGS BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Briggs: Harder and harder for Ohioans to join university, football team

St. John's star joins exclusive club at Ohio State

Urban Meyer's Ohio State recruiting classes haven't included as many Ohioans as predecessor Jim Tressel's, echoing a trend also seen at the university level. BLADE

The irrepressible E. Gordon Gee once told me his aim was to make Ohio State “elite and not elitist.”

And he was not talking about football recruiting, though he helped there too.

No, the former OSU president was laying out his ambition to transform the state’s flagship university into an academic power without betraying its original land-grant mission to serve the students of Ohio.

Gee knew he straddled a fine line, with strong emotions on both sides. Ohio State is now aggressively recruiting students from around the world, which has provided admirable diversity and indeed raised the bar to elite heights. Its incoming freshman class last year averaged a 29.1 on the ACT — up from 22.8 in 1996 and 26.4 in 2006.

RELATED: Gant makes verbal commitment to Ohio State on Tuesday

And yet the university’s rising stature has come at the increasing expense of students in its backyard. Put it this way: If I sent in an application to my alma mater today, the admissions office would not only reject it but share it with all of their friends. (As they should!) The percentage of incoming non-Ohio natives at OSU more than doubled from 14 percent in 2006 to 33 percent last year.

Ohio State football is facing the same kind of identity debate.

When St. John’s Jesuit linebacker Dallas Gant pledged to the Buckeyes this week, he joined the most exclusive club this side of the Justice League.

The club of Ohio high school football prospects bound for Ohio State.

As the Urban Meyer recruiting machine hums along, the traditionally homegrown Buckeyes have become choosier — and more national — than ever in their search for the best football players in the country.

And the results speak for themselves. Meyer is 61-6 with a national title in five seasons in Columbus, and his import/​export business is matched only by the prep-to-the-pros ferry of Alabama’s Nick Saban.

Heck, the Buckeyes’ 2017 class — the one that led the Big Ten for the sixth straight year — included three five-star kids from Texas. Know how many five-star Texans went to the University of Texas? Zero. For all of the lasting achievements of Jim Tressel, the overall depth of talent and speed at Ohio State today is in a different orbit.

Yet like with the university itself, the new recruiting heights have come at the expense of its age-old identity.

The same program that once relied mostly on talent from its own football-mad state is now just the opposite.

In Tressel’s last 10 recruiting classes, Ohio players made up 60 percent (124 of 205) of its scholarship signees. In Meyer’s last six recruiting classes — including the recruits committed for 2018 — that number is 37 percent (48 of 130) and trending down.

The Buckeyes counted 16 Ohio natives among their 46 signees the past two years while Gant and Columbus-area running back Jaelen Gill are the only Ohioans among the 10 prospects already in the fold for ’18.

Gone is any home-state sentimentality. With some exceptions, the strategy is to cherry pick the very cream of the Ohio crop, then hit the road.

Which tells you how much Ohio State — and everyone else — thought of Gant, rated by 247Sports as the top outside linebacker in the nation.

For all of northwest Ohio’s great recent high school players — Central Catholic’s DeShone Kizer (Notre Dame) and James Hudson (Michigan), Springfield’s Bryant Koback (Kentucky), the list goes on — Gant is not only the first Toledo native to commit to Ohio State since Central’s Jayme Thompson in 2013. He is the first player from The Blade’s coverage area the Buckeyes have since offered.

For Meyer, this is a sensitive topic.

This state is proud of its high school football, and for good reason. Despite noted population shifts, Ohio still produces the fifth-most FBS prospects every year, behind only California, Texas, Florida, and Georgia.

Trust us, there are prep coaches who privately worry the Buckeyes’ scope has become so large that it can no longer see the talent right in front of them.

Meyer appreciates the concern. The Toledo-born coach came of age with God, family, and Woody Hayes, who fed that provincial pride with Ohio-made teams. More than 85 percent of Ohio State’s 1968 national championship team were born-and-bred Buckeyes.

“A guy from Ohio can make it in life if he works hard enough,” Hayes famously said.

And maybe there was something to that, to developing a local kid who chose Ohio State not because it represented the clearest path to the NFL but because he lived to wear scarlet. 

Meyer said he wants an even split of in-state prospects in each class. 

“It wasn’t enough Ohio,” player personnel director Mark Pantoni said of this year’s haul. “That’s something we want our percentage to be much higher on. There’s too much talent in this state. At the same time, we’re searching for the best players in the country. [But] we always have to keep reminding ourselves Ohio kids are our first priority. They will be. 

“Sometimes we probably overevaluate them because those are the kids we get to camp so many times, we know all about, versus a kid out of state. We place so much emphasis on the state of Ohio.”

Whether that is true is very debatable. So is whether it matters. 

My sense is fans have bigger worries, say, who will back up at left guard. Their connection is to the school and the tradition and the uniforms more than the players who wear them a few years at a time. If Ohio State wins with mostly Ohio kids, all the better. 

It says here Meyer needs to find more of a balance. But until then, well, just make sure you keep winning 91 percent of the time, and people will understand. 

With recruits like Gant — whether from Toledo or Texas — Meyer should be OK.

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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Tag(s): College  St. John's Jesuit  Ohio State  David Briggs