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Column: How far can Ohio State go in claiming other programs’ starpower?

The limit does not exist. 

CFP National Championship Presented by AT&T - Ohio State v Alabama Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

A picture is worth a thousand words, and the photo of Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave and Jameson Williams in the endzone in the 2021 College Football Playoff Championship exemplifies the story of the 2022 NFL Draft — or at least the narrative Ohio State wants to tell.

It was a big night for receivers overall, but the 10-11-12 selection overall of Wilson, Olave and Williams to the New York Jets, New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions leaves a lot to unpack — most notably because, as alluded to in the opener, they once lined up on offense for Ohio State altogether.

For starters, the trio’s success is a testament to Ohio State wide receivers coach Brian Hartline who, in just a few seasons, has made Columbus THE destination for top receiver talent from across the country. That pipeline has continued into its next generation, as we saw in the Rose Bowl in January with Jaxon Smith-Njigba seamlessly stepping into the role of No. 1 receiver.

There’s also the continued success of Ohio State in the draft at large — a story this draft helped to perpetuate. The Buckeyes have had at least one first round pick in every draft since 2016, and the program has an FBS record 87 first-round selections.

For all the success of this year’s draft, this narrative also begs the question of how much Ohio State can continue to capitalize on the talent of individual players who did not finish their collegiate careers in Columbus — something that would have seemed altogether unthinkable just a few seasons ago.

In 2022, however, the phenomenon is not that far-fetched, nor is it uncommon. Ohio State fans have been claiming Joe Burrow as a member of Buckeye Nation despite him leaving for LSU in 2018 after graduating from Ohio State — a solid reason to count him in the ranks if there ever was one. Now, we can add Williams to the list. It’s a scenario that will only continue to compound with the continuation of the transfer portal as more players will spend time with multiple programs during their college careers.

On the flip side, it feels apparent that Ohio State fans would rarely give credit to the previous program of a player who transferred in. There is some haughtiness there, but there’s also consideration that, as the elitist of elite programs, Ohio State deserves much of the credit in getting the inbound player the stage and setup to be successful.

That narrative doesn’t hold up when we look at players like North Carolina graduate transfer kicker Noah Ruggles, but even with a grad transfer, the story of Ruggles’ time in Columbus still contained the element that he’d initially wanted to come to Ohio State and his grandfather was a season ticket holder.

Similarly, we also tell ourselves that players like Williams and Burrow who transfer to other elite programs — Alabama and LSU, for instance — are trading for new situations with other great programs, so we can assume Ohio State played a big role in their development. Again, that’s the narrative we repeat to ourselves when times are good.

Perhaps looking at players who have never been at Ohio State can help us understand this situation. For instance, will Oklahoma continue to claim Caleb Williams as a Sooner? What about NC State/Wisconsin and Russell Wilson?

Russell Wilson presents a rare case of a player who can give us hindsight in this rapidly evolving situation, as the graduate transfer situation is recognizably more clear cut but similar to the chaos of the transfer portal. Players play for a significant period at their undergraduate school’s program before wrapping up elsewhere. For Big Ten fans, the emphasis for Wilson is the “somewhere” he landed — Wisconsin — while for others it might be NC State, where he spent the first several years of his college career. In many ways, it feels like there are fewer hard feelings with grad transfers.

Like Williams, Burrow didn’t leave anyone at Ohio State in a lurch when he transferred. Dwayne Haskins had effectively backed up JT Barrett in 2017 when Burrow was injured, and Haskins came out on top of the three-way quarterback competition in the spring of 2018. Haskins would go on to have a phenomenal season in 2018 before Justin Fields transferred in from Georgia in 2019 — a move no one was mad about.

That’s a long way of saying there were no hard feelings when Burrow left.

Fields, of course, is the inverse of Burrow, having played limited snaps in his single season with the Bulldogs before transferring to Ohio State. However, like Burrow and Williams, Ohio State fans claim Fields unequivocally as one of their own.

Granted, that “claim” also translates into extraordinary support. When Williams went down with an injury in the College Football Playoff final this year, Buckeye Nation collectively held its breath and hoped it wasn’t too serious. Like Burrow, we all seem to have a soft spot for Williams and want him to succeed, even if he did go to an SEC school.

Of course, even the most loyal of Ohio State fans can be fickle at times. We accept that Williams wouldn’t have had as much of a breakout season in Columbus if he was splitting catches with Olave and Wilson. Would our feelings toward Williams be so positive if Ohio State’s receiver room was not quite so talented this past season? We know what we’d do: We’d be calling him a traitor.

There’s also the consideration of some of the more unceremonious departures from Ohio State for the transfer portal who get no love from Ohio State fans. The mid-season transfer of linebacker K’Vaughan Pope comes to mind. It’s hard to imagine Ohio State fans cheering for him in the same way they did for the parted Williams — then again, tweeting out obscenities about the team at halftime might have contributed to those hard feelings.

Regardless of how we feel, Burrow doesn’t say he went to Ohio State when he does his voiceover for Monday Night Football. There are probably few who care that he started his career at Ohio State. So why is it so important to us, especially when we have so many other proof points?

At the end of the day, Ohio State has an embarrassment of riches, and probably can pump the brakes on claiming players who didn’t actually finish their college careers in Columbus. There’s no shortage of proof points to the validity of the program, and this past draft was no exception. Two receivers going high in the first round should be proof enough of the strength of the program.

Then again, there’s no reason not to keep showing that photo of Olave, Wilson and Williams at every possible opportunity.