What does it mean to be an NFL pipeline? Is it having players on 20 NFL rosters, including both sides of the most recent Super Bowl? What about a dozen first-round picks in the last five drafts? Or is it, perhaps, making up the majority of the secondary of the fourth-ranked defense in the league?
Under Urban Meyer, Ohio State has done all of this and more, making Ohio State a destination for NFL-caliber talent at many position groups. But Meyer’s ability to grow and develop talent did not start when he came to Columbus. Rather, he was a proven entity in terms of NFL production long before he came to Ohio State, having played a similar role while at Florida and Utah where he churned out players like Percy Harvin and Alex Smith.
An all-league team could be fielded from former Meyer products, both from Ohio State and his previous coaching stops. Meyer personally coached five of 32 current starting centers in the NFL. He has produced anchors on the offensive and defensive lines, while turning out electric players on the perimeter like Michael Thomas and Reggie Nelson.
Turning out professional players was just one piece of the elaborate puzzle that Meyer built at his respective programs. The NFL pipeline was the centerpiece of Meyer’s recruiting machine; an almost irresistible appeal to standout recruits that playing in Columbus was one of the surest ways to an NFL roster.
This year’s draft class, the final one which Meyer will have seen for the full-length of their college careers, looks to be no exception. Defensive end Nick Bosa should, by all accounts, be taken at the top of the draft, potentially No. 1-overall by the Arizona Cardinals. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins is projected to be selected by the New York Giants with the sixth pick. Following an impressive NFL Combine performance, wide receiver Parris Campbell, very well might have moved up to become a first-rounder, and defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones has solid Day 1 potential as well.
However, there already looks to be a distinct shift in the balance of players heading to the NFL. Of the 10 former Ohio State players at the combine last week, just three are defensive players.
This shift toward strength on the offensive side of the ball might be due, in part, to the early influence of new first-year head coach Ryan Day. This year’s draft represents the first set of quasi-Day players — or at least players whom Day has put a bit of a stamp on as the offensive mind on the sideline.
In this vein, this first draft experience could not look rosier for the new head coach. After just one season as a starter, unequivocally under Day’s tutelage, Haskins is poised to become the first Ohio State quarterback taken in the first round since Art Schlichter was taken fourth-overall by the Colts in 1982. Also benefiting Day is the trio of Campbell, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon at receiver along with a slew of offensive linemen.
While Meyer has found balance through the years and several iterations of being a head coach, Day is inherently an offensive mind. In the short term, it seems likely that the relative weight of NFL-caliber players from Ohio State will shift to the offense. Meyer was successful in finding a balance between offense and defense, and that is something that Day needs to work to emulate — especially as a first-time head coach, with an almost completely rebuilt defensive coaching staff.
While Meyer is often considered to be an offensive visionary for his popularization of the spread-offense, he spent his playing career, and began his coaching career (albeit in high school), on the defensive side of the ball.
So, there has always been a connection to that side of the ball, despite his evolution to an offensive guru. So, it makes sense that many of the highest-profile players that he has turned out have been defensive stars: Joey Bosa, Marshon Lattimore and Ryan Shazier at Ohio State, and Carlos Dunlap, Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins at Florida.
Still, given that Meyer has risen through the traditional ranks to head coach, and has been at the helm of several programs, it also follows that he has learned to achieve balance on the offensive side of the ball when it comes to NFL talent. The likes of Ezekiel Elliott and Thomas are enough to turn heads, but Meyer has also turned out a litany of offensive linemen, including consecutive Rimington Award winners Pat Elflein and Billy Price.
Day will need to learn to strike that balance without having been conditioned to involvement on the defensive side of the ball. One of the things that Day said of his time as the interim head coach during Meyer’s suspension to open the 2018 season was that he had to spend extra time just to get to know the defensive players. Obviously that will be even more important not with his current players, and current recruits.
In these first few seasons, Ohio State has a reputation that will keep the new coach in the game long enough to make a name for himself, but Day will need to establish his own mantra early. A Buckeye-filled NFL Draft come April will solidify Ohio State as a top choice for recruits.
However, there are no guarantees, and such is the downside of untested coaches. As always, recruiting prowess is put in jeopardy purely by the introduction of a new coach. That disruption was evident this recruiting season as the Buckeyes had the 14th-ranked recruiting class nationally; although they did have the third-highest average rating per player.
It was the first time since Meyer took over as head coach that Ohio State was out of the top-10, and just the second that the program was not in the top-five. However, Day can avoid further disturbance to recruiting by continuing to demonstrate the sales pitch of ongoing NFL success. The 2020 recruiting class for OSU is currently rated sixth overall according to 247 Sports Composite rankings.
The recruiting engine does not rely on a single input. Rather, it is a pull-process in which outstanding high school recruits come to Ohio State with the chance to develop into pro-level talent. While successful NFL picks might appear to be the output of the process, those picks are what fuel high-caliber recruiting on the front end.
Simply put, the pitch under Meyer was that coming to Ohio State was the clearest path to the NFL. Day must figure out if his value proposition is the same, and if so, how he will be able to continue the success begun under Meyer.