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Column: What happens when you have 4.5 former Buckeyes on the Bengals?

They’re not the ones you would have expected.

Syndication: The Enquirer Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

It’s always better when someone else sings your praises. It’s a much more authentic testimonial, say, than when you talk about yourself. But what happens when the spokespeople are… unexpected?

Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals won the AFC Championship as underdogs over the Kansas City Chiefs, the reigning champs of the conference. Key to the game were four (or five, depending on how you look at it) former players from Ohio State. These players are not the typical types hyped in pitches to prospective recruits, though. They’re not the Nick and Joey Bosas of the world, or Justin Fields or Michael Thomas or Marshon Lattimore.

Instead, they’re something of a band of misfits. While their careers at Ohio State and thus far in the NFL have by no means been failures, we’ve not seen the meteoric individual rising to the top we’ve noted (or expected) from the aforementioned list. Sure, the NFL is hard, and not everyone will be a superstar, but none among this group of four have ever made a Pro Bowl. None have won a Super Bowl. Three of them, highly touted out of high school, weren’t even first-round selections in their respective NFL Draft classes.

But that’s what makes this pitch even more exciting: A middle of the road player at Ohio State is still a Super Bowl contender. Star power is not limited to the first-round picks.

That’s why this weekend turned out to be such a boon for Ohio State. What better way to articulate the “developed here” message than with defensive end Sam Hubbard disrupting Patrick Mahomes late in the fourth quarter to keep the Bengals alive? What of Eli Apple who stopped Tyreek Hill short of the endzone at the end of the first half — a play that would prove critical to Cincinnati’s win? Or Vonn Bell’s pick of Patrick Mahomes in overtime? Or tackle Isaiah Prince being part of an offensive line that gave up just one sack to Kansas City?

The pitch of “come here and you’ll have a shot at the NFL” is nothing new for Ohio State, but it’s an articulation of something that goes a step further than the high number of NFL Draft picks we’ve seen come out of Ohio State — because it ends in the Super Bowl.

The story of the four (arguably five) Buckeyes on the Bengals is a tale of misfits:

  • Sam Hubbard is an even more local product than Joe Burrow. Hubbard played safety at Moeller, and initially had a lacrosse scholarship to Notre Dame before going to Ohio State. He returned home immediately when the Bengals chose him in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. His greatest recognition at Ohio State came with second team All-Big Ten honors in 2017. He finished his redshirt junior season with seven sacks, which was second on the team. Of course, it’s hard to be a star when sandwiched between Nick Bosa and Chase Young.
  • In his opening seasons in the NFL, Eli Apple did not do what he was supposed to do as a first-round selection by the New York Giants. With on-field performance that demanded more production, Apple’s reputation in the locker room (which teammate Landon Collins called a “cancer”) meant that the 10th-overall pick would have to pick up and start elsewhere — first in New Orleans, then with Carolina and, finally, in Cincinnati.
  • Speaking of New Orleans, Vonn Bell was a fine player on a defensive secondary that favored the former Buckeyes including for a moment, as mentioned, Apple. Bell even competed for the starting strong safety role in 2018 with Kurt Coleman. Bell had just one career interception and eight career sacks before coming to Cincinnati.
  • Isaiah Prince was something of a disappointment during his time at Ohio State. The former four-star recruit — the fifth-ranked offensive tackle and top player from Maryland in his class — took much longer to develop while on a line loaded with what should have been future NFL talent. Despite earning first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2018, he fell to the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, when he was picked by Miami. Prince played just four games with the Dolphins before he was waived and, as fate would have it, ended up with the Bengals.
  • Because we’re still going to claim some credit for Joe Burrow, there’s the obvious fact Burrow didn’t win the starting role in Columbus and transferred to LSU with perhaps the least amount of hard feelings and ill will Ohio State fans have ever mustered.

Somehow, this group landed together in Cincinnati — a team no one had a lot of faith in heading into the season (and maybe even beyond week 10 or so); a team that’s been the underdog throughout the NFL Playoffs. And yet here they all are, about to play for a Super Bowl.

The four (officially listed) former Ohio State players on Cincinnati’s roster are more than any other school, including LSU. There’s also the thing about the Bengals, you know, being in Ohio. When it comes to competing for recruits in the state of Ohio, the Buckeyes’ pitch is winning out. For instance, the city of Cincinnati has just one player — punter Kevin Huber — on the Bengals’ active roster. Somewhat ironically, former Bearcat Travis Kelce was on the opposing sideline playing for the Chiefs.

It’s naive to give sole credit to Ohio State for developing these four (or five) players. They’ve been through their own journey — Bell, Apple and Prince with other teams even — but the badge of honor, the mandatory pronouncement that we’ll hear four times when the starting lineups introduce themselves at the Super Bowl in two weeks can’t be denied. When Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, Sam Hubbard and Isaiah Prince announce their names, they’ll all be followed by the same institution:

THE Ohio State University.