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To portal, or not to portal? That is the question for Ohio State football.

Is Ryan Day’s conservative approach to the transfer portal a swing-and-a-miss, or a series of bets on current players’ potential?

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Ryan Day and the Ohio State football team added a big piece to the defense on Monday in former Ole Miss cornerback Davison Igbinosun. He joins other transfers that joined the Buckeyes in recent weeks — former Oregon State quarterback Tristan Gebbia, Louisiana-Monroe offensive lineman Victor Cutler, Syracuse safety Ja’Had Carter, Kent state kicker Casey Magyar, and Arizona State long snapper John Ferlmann.

In total, the Buckeyes have now added six transfer players since the end of the 2022 season, indicating a more aggressive approach in “free agency”... for OSU, that is. Not most programs.

Under Day’s guidance, the Scarlet and Gray have preferred to build and develop from within, at the same time attempting to avoid massive roster turnover seen elsewhere. As part of that plan and/or process, Ohio State has inarguably taken a very conservative approach to transfers, only wading ankle-deep into the portal waters. Adding five new faces is a detour from the usual path taken, but not a hard left onto Mel Tucker Highway.

So what do we make of OSU’s approach to the transfer portal? Is it the right one or the wrong one? Is it timid or tactical? I am here to tell you that I have absolutely no clue. Every program is different, with a unique combination of resources, expectations, and circumstances under which they operate.

Day and his coaches should not be using the same figurative playbook as Deion Sanders at Colorado, just like Prime Time should not be going out of his way to keep 99 percent of CU’s eligible roster intact (as the Buckeyes tend to do). Different strokes for different folks as they say, and the transfer portal will continue to be utilized differently by each and every program. There is simply no template.

Getting back to Ohio State, there are fans out there who are upset with the way January ultimately played out — and I’m not talking about the Peach Bowl. Specific to transfer comings and goings, the Buckeyes lost a handful of players to the portal, while adding a grad QB with limited game experience, a Sun Belt OL, a long snapper, a preferred walk-on kicker, and a productive safety from the ACC... Not exactly a who’s who of college football. And those additions have not been good enough for some. But I think that many of the negative reactions from Buckeye Nation are short-sighted and unnecessary. Allow me to pontificate.

Also, let me preface my argument with this: I would have been over-the-moon excited had OSU landed a commitment from Dasan McCullough, Ajani Cornelius, or Fentrell Cypress. Those players – among others – should have been pursued aggressively, in my humble opinion. So I am in no way trying to frame the early transfer period as some wild success. But at the same time, I would never call it a failure. By no means whatsoever, and for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, working the transfer portal is much different than high school recruiting — strictly from a timing perspective.. Due to a horrid, horrid schedule set forth by the good ol’ NCAA, Ohio State and other schools competing in meaningful bowl games are expected to navigate the portal and forge relationships while at the same time preparing for the sport’s most prestigious and meaningful games... Just brilliant.

Early Signing Day even gets in on the action! Just a comedy of scheduling errors, but I will touch more on that later. My point here is that certain schools are unable to prioritize relationship-building when dozens (or hundreds, I’m not sure) of players are first exploring transfer options.

Sure, a player can choose to keep their options open until January, February, or even the spring and summer months if they are so inclined, but there is an edge to be gained by making contact early. McCullough, for example, entered the transfer portal on December 5 and committed to Oklahoma on December 12. There were extenuating circumstances, and the former Indiana Hoosier was likely never going to be dissuaded from joining his little brother in Norman, but let’s play make-believe: What if the Buckeyes had been able to arrange a few phone calls and a visit?

What if Day delegated certain coaching duties in preparation for the hypothetical Bush’s Baked Beans Bowl (his team did not make the CFP in this scenario) and instead put a full court press on landing the former OSU verbal commit? I am not trying to make excuses, but I do think there are legitimate reasons as to why Day and his staff were a bit behind the 8-ball during this transfer period.

High school recruiting and Early Signing Day also played a role in dictating Ohio State’s transfer activity, which is something I alluded to earlier. With ESD and the “real” opening of the portal going on concurrently, programs are often forced to choose: Who or what are we all-in (relative term) on? Do we prefer high school recruits, or experienced transfers? While obviously possible to serve two masters in this situation, I would argue that if a team chases even one transfer player, they are not all-in on their recruiting class — or recruits at a certain position. If your favorite team scours the country for two transfers, they are even further away from being all-in. Three players, even further than that. And so on.

Same rings true for the opposite approach. If a team plans to sink or swim with a proven portal QB, but then hosts a late-rising HS recruit who de-committed from another school in mid-December, well then they risk losing John Football, who they began talking to weeks or months prior... Which means they are not all-in on the transfer route. I am focusing on extremes and one-offs here, but I hope you get the point. Two masters can be served, but never with full vigor.

Few programs take all-in literally – whether recruiting or transfer shopping – but they do typically prioritize one method of roster construction over another. OSU clearly prioritizes long-term recruiting relationships over swiping right and hooking up with the most willing or available transfer. And given the results (three CFP berths in four seasons), I find it hard to criticize what Day, Mark Pantoni, and others have adopted as their team-building philosophy. Said philosophy is really what it all comes down to.

Ryan Day and Ohio State as a living, breathing entity preach brotherhood, chemistry, development, and results. Right, wrong, or otherwise, the general philosophy can be summed up as: Bring in the right players, foster relationships, develop those players in-house, and either send ‘em off to the NFL or give them life skills necessary to succeed elsewhere.

Believe in it, buy it, or don’t — I favor the Buckeyes’ football culture over that of, say, Texas A&M. Jimbo Fisher could tell me face-to-face that he and his coaches are building character and mentoring young men to the best of their ability, but I’ll never believe it. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and said fire is probably coming out of Bobby Petrino’s tailpipe right now, as he races away from some unfinished business and right into an A&M staff meeting.

Does transfer culture = Texas A&M culture? No idea, but I’m sure this guy would give us an honest answer.
Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

That culture seems (allegedly) toxic. And I’m not here to tell you that OSU has a perfect culture by any means, but part of what makes it worthy of having at least some pride in, is the fact that the coaches, the athletic department, and the university generally seem to do right by their players. Sometimes than can result in being overly stubborn regarding a guy’s potential – and turning a blind eye to outside interest – but I would rather Ohio State miss out on one talent than risk alienating three or four known commodities. Probably not the best way to do business, but my argument is supported by the next paragraph.

Finally, I would point out that bringing in a boatload of transfers is no guarantee of success. See: Michigan State football.

Furthermore, it (operating as Mercenary U) could be rather indicative of failures elsewhere. There are clear exceptions, such as coaching turnover, scandal, etc... But at the end of the day, if your favorite CFB team is bringing in 15-20 transfers, there is a better-than-zero chance that any or all of the following statements are true: Multiple coaches throughout the program suck at their job(s)... Their ability to recruit and/or develop talent is non-existent... Or maybe the head coach is just an asshole, and no player can stand to be around him for longer than 18 months. Either way, you don’t see Alabama or Georgia (or Ohio State) bringing in transfers by dozen(s). There’s a reason for that.

If you (Buckeye Nation, LGHL readers, whoever) are still upset by OSU’s lack of aggressiveness or ability to close in the transfer portal, I get it. I can’t say, with an ounce of honesty in my bones, that January has been a perfect month. The Buckeyes need to better supplement their young roster, period. But at least take a look back at the hits and misses – and give it until spring – before any torches are lit... Justin Fields, Jonah Jackson, Trey Sermon, etc. All hits. And there will be additional roster movement in the future. It’s only January!

As for those misses, who are we even talking about? Eli Ricks? The former LSU Tiger transferred to Bama and played sparingly as a backup. That player every Ohio State fan seemed to want at this time last year totaled 13 tackles and broke up four passes in Tuscaloosa, before declaring for the 2023 NFL Draft. He also had a little run-in with the Mississippi Highway Patrol before the 2022 season, which is probably part of the reason he sat on the bench to begin with. So yeah, a real swing and a miss there, huh?

Ryan Day and his staff build their roster a certain way. That’s all there is to it. You can love it, hate it, or be indifferent to it... But if you’re a Buckeye fan, I think it is important to give the new(ish) coaches more time. If cornerbacks still can’t spot a ball in the air after year two with Tim Walton, and Cypress wins the Thorpe Award at Florida State, then I will eat crow and admit that Ohio State’s current approach is ineffective and overly conservative. But until then, I will choose to believe in the old saying: A bird with a hand is worth two bushes.