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Ohio's best: The top 21 high school football players in 2021

Gannett staff members researched and compiled a list of the best players and college prospects in Ohio.

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The state of Ohio continues to produce high-quality high school football players who will put their talents on display this fall.

As a preview to this season, the high school sports staff of the Gannett Corporation's more than 60 Ohio newspapers and websites compiled a who's who of the Buckeye State's prep gridiron. The staff chose athletes, no matter the high school division, receiving interest from or committing to high Division I collegiate programs.

Sports: Marysville's Gabe Powers combines natural ability with commitment to his team

This is the first in a four-part series that will include the sports of volleyball, boys soccer and girls soccer in the coming weeks. 

Here are best football players in the state of Ohio. 

How they were ranked

Gannett staff members researched and compiled a list of high Division I-caliber players. More than 40 players made of the pool, and from there the staff chose its top 21. Each player received points based on where they placed in the journalist's rankings. First-place players received 21 points, second-place players got 20 and so on until the 21st player wrapped it up with 1 point. Those points were tabulated to determine the top 21 players.

1.  C.J. Hicks, LB, senior, Kettering Alter

Alter's CJ Hicks (1) and Branden McDonald (5) greet each other prior to a high school football game between the Archbishop Alter Knights and the Badin Rams at Lakota East High School in Liberty Township, Ohio, on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020.
Alter's CJ Hicks (1) and Branden McDonald (5) greet each other prior to a high school football game between the Archbishop Alter Knights and the Badin Rams at Lakota East High School in Liberty Township, Ohio, on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. JEFFREY DEAN FOR THE ENQUIRER

Hicks is the No. 1 2022 recruit in Ohio and the No. 2 linebacker in the nation, according to 247Sports. The five-star recruit was first-team All-Ohio in 2020 after helping lead Kettering Alter to a regional championship. Hicks posted 61 tackles, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a 42-yard pick-six and was named the Greater Catholic League Coed’s defensive player of the year. Hicks is an Ohio State commit.

2.  Gabe Powers, LB, senior, Marysville

Powers, a 6-4, 230-pound linebacker and Ohio State recruit, was named Ohio Capital Conference-Cardinal Division, Division I Central District and state Defensive Player of the Year to cap a breakout junior season.

Gabe Powers is a 6-foot-4 inch, 230-pound linebacker and Ohio State recruit.
Gabe Powers is a 6-foot-4 inch, 230-pound linebacker and Ohio State recruit. Fred Squillante/Columbus Dispatch

Powers had 61 solo tackles, four sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception in eight games, leading the Monarchs to their first league championship since 2000 and a Region 2 quarterfinal. He also rushed for 704 yards on 83 carries and caught six passes for 77 yards in Marysville’s Wing-T offense.

Powers is a four-star recruit who is ranked second overall in the state by both 247Sports and Rivals.com. He is ranked second nationally at linebacker and 17th overall by Rivals and third at his position statewide and 38th overall by 247Sports.

Ohio State recruiting: Marysville’s Gabe Powers, top-ranked player in Ohio, commits to Buckeyes’ 2022 class

He drew offers from Arkansas, Boston College, Colorado, Florida State, Iowa State, Kentucky, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Stanford, Tennessee, USC, West Virginia and Wisconsin before committing to the Buckeyes on Aug. 1, 2020.

Powers’ father, Mike, was a linebacker at Findlay and now is an assistant coach at Marysville. Older brother Michael was a walk-on linebacker at West Virginia in 2019 before transferring to Ohio Dominican.

3.  Aamil Wagner, OT, senior, Huber Heights Wayne

Aamil Wagner of Wayne High School is currently considering colleges that include Ohio State University, the University of Kentucky, Notre Dame, Penn State and more.
Aamil Wagner of Wayne High School is currently considering colleges that include Ohio State University, the University of Kentucky, Notre Dame, Penn State and more. Thanks to Aamil Wagner

A four-star recruit, Wagner is the No. 3 overall recruit in Ohio for the Class of 2022 and the No. 8 offensive tackle prospect in the nation. Wagner was first-team All-Ohio in 2020 and holds over two dozen Division I offers. The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder is believed to be a heavy lean to Ohio State, but lists his top school as OSU, Notre Dame, University of Kentucky, Penn State and Maryland. He helped the Wayne Warriors to a 5-3 record in 2020. 

Drew Allar
Drew Allar Courtesy of Medina, Courtesy of Medina

4.  Drew Allar, QB, senior, Medina

The Penn State commit, the No. 6 overall recruit in 2022 in Ohio, is rewriting the Medina record book after the Bees earned Division I playoff wins over Strongsville, St. Edward and St. Ignatius, and then lost to Mentor in a regional final in 2020. At nearly 6-foot-5 and 228 pounds, the four-star Allar set a Medina County record by throwing for 502 yards against Brunswick. He tossed two touchdown passes and ran for another TD against Strongsville, tossed three touchdown passes versus St. Edward and completed 22-of-36 passes for 429 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in one half against Ignatius. Allar threw only two interceptions over his final 164 attempts, received second-team All-Ohio honors in Division I and was a first-team All-Northeast Inland District selection.

Lakota West defensive back Jyaire Brown (Ohio State commit) at practice  Saturday, Aug. 1, first official day for fall practice in Ohio. Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020.
Lakota West defensive back Jyaire Brown (Ohio State commit) at practice Saturday, Aug. 1, first official day for fall practice in Ohio. Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020. TONY TRIBBLE FOR THE ENQUIRER

5.  Jyaire Brown, DB, senior, Lakota West

Four-star recruit Brown joined Lakota West prior to the 2020 season transferring from Louisiana. The 6-foot, 178-pound shutdown corner helped lead the Firebirds to a Greater Miami Conference title. Brown, the No. 5 overall 2022 recruit in Ohio and the 13th-ranked defensive back in the country, was named first-team All-Ohio and is committed to the Army All-American Bowl. Brown has been committed to Ohio State since last season. Though he didn't have any interceptions as a junior, teams rarely threw in his direction. 

Lakota West: Coach Tom Bolden wants to let Ohio State commits loose, but can't right now

WATCH: Lakota West teammates support one another at Under Armour camp in Columbus
Scott Springer, Cincinnati Enquirer

6. Tegra Tshabola, OT, senior, Lakota West

Tshabola, a 6-foot-6, 340-pound tackle, is a first-team All-Ohio selection and an Ohio State University commit. He's been committed to the Buckeyes since before his junior season. For his class, Tshabola is ranked as the No. 7 overall recruit in Ohio and 23rd nationally among tackles. The four-star recruit recently committed to the Army All-American Bowl.

Strongsville's Blake Miller is one of the nation's top offensive tackles. He did not allow a sack in 2020 and is committed to Clemson.
Strongsville's Blake Miller is one of the nation's top offensive tackles. He did not allow a sack in 2020 and is committed to Clemson. Provided by Strongsville Athletics

7.  Blake Miller, OL, senior, Strongsville

The senior is a top-200 2022 recruit in the nation according to the 247Sports Composite, including No. 8 in Ohio and the No. 21 offensive tackle. That status, as well as his 6-foot-6, 315-pound stature, is what drew college offers from a virtual who's who of major programs. Ultimately, Miller committed to Clemson last October. Miller did not allow a sack during the 2020 season. Started as a defensive tackle as a freshman in 2018, but took over at left tackle in 2019 after the Mustangs lost current Michigan State Spartan J.D. Duplain to graduation.

8.  Kaden Saunders, WR/DB, senior, Westerville South

Saunders, ranked the fourth-best overall recruit in the state by 247Sports and sixth by Rivals, built on an early commitment to Penn State by leading the Wildcats to their deepest playoff run in 11 years.

Westerville (Ohio) South's Kaden Saunders, a 2022 wide receiver, reported a Notre Dame scholarship offer on Feb. 1.
Westerville (Ohio) South's Kaden Saunders, a 2022 wide receiver, reported a Notre Dame scholarship offer on Feb. 1.

Saunders had 45 catches for 946 yards and 13 touchdowns and was named first-team all OCC-Capital, all-district and all-state in Division II. Saunders committed to Penn State on July 25, 2020, more than a month before the start of his junior season, making him the first member of the Nittany Lions’ recruiting class of 2022.

He also has played defensive back, returned kickoffs and punts and has been timed at 4.43 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

South went 7-1 overall and lost to eventual state runner-up Massillon Washington 45-36 in a Region 7 semifinal.

Saunders earned 25 offers, including seven from the Big Ten as well as Cincinnati and Notre Dame. He is a four-star recruit entering this season and was named the top wide receiver at a Rivals Camp Series event in May in Indianapolis, earning an invitation to the Rivals Five-Star Challenge.

9.  Elijah Brown, TE, senior, Huber Heights Wayne

Elijah Brown of Wayne High School is a four-star recruit committed to the University of Alabama.
Elijah Brown of Wayne High School is a four-star recruit committed to the University of Alabama. Thanks to Aamil Wagner

Brown is the No. 11 overall 2022 recruit in Ohio and the No. 12 tight end in the nation for his class, according to 247Sports. A four-star recruit, Brown is committed to the University of Alabama. In 2020, the 6-foot-6, 240-pound tight end caught 20 balls for 278 yards and a touchdown. He was recruited by former NFL coach Bill O'Brien, now with the Crimson Tide under Nick Saban. 

10.  Gi’Bran Payne, RB, senior, La Salle

Listed as a four-star recruit by 247Sports and the No. 9 overall player in the state for the Class of 2022, Payne helped lead La Salle to a DII state championship in 2019. As a sophomore that season, he ran for 790 yards and nine touchdowns while catching eight balls for 141 yards and three scores to earn second-team all-district honors. As a junior last season, he was limited to just 43 carries over seven games due to injury. He finished the year with 416 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Payne also plays linebacker for the Lancers. His current list of suitors is down to five: Alabama, Florida, Northwestern, Notre Dame and Penn State. 

La Salle's  Gi'Bran Payne runs the ball during their football game, Friday, Aug. 27, 2020.
La Salle's Gi'Bran Payne runs the ball during their football game, Friday, Aug. 27, 2020. TONY TRIBBLE FOR THE ENQUIRER

11.  Trey Bixby, DL, senior, Lakewood St. Edward

The senior is the latest in a long line of uber-talented St. Edward defensive linemen. The No. 10 overall 2022 recruit in Ohio by 247Sports, Bixby committed to the University of Minnesota prior to last season. The four-star 6-foot-4, 245-pounder also had offers by Arkansas, Michigan State, Penn State and Cincinnati, among others. Bixby sat out the COVID-impacted 2020 season. As a sophomore in 2019, Bixby finished with 75 tackles, including 3.5 sacks, five tackles for loss and 13 quarterback hurries.

Trey Bixby of St. Edward is the No. 10 overall 2022 recruit in Ohio by 247Sports. Bixby committed to the University of Minnesota prior to last season.
Trey Bixby of St. Edward is the No. 10 overall 2022 recruit in Ohio by 247Sports. Bixby committed to the University of Minnesota prior to last season. Thanks to Tom Colburn via Trey Dixon

12.  Sonny Styles, DB, junior, Pickerington Central

The 6-5, 216-pound Styles enters this season as the top-ranked junior in the state and top-ranked safety nationally by 247Sports. He is ranked 15th overall nationally by 247Sports and 26th by Rivals.

After missing his freshman season because of a broken tibia, Styles had 50 tackles, four interceptions and one fumble recovery, which he returned for a touchdown, last season to help lead Central’s defense as it went 11-1 but fell short of its second consecutive Division I state championship, losing to St. Xavier 44-3 in the state final.

Styles was named first-team all-district, second-team all-OCC-Buckeye and honorable mention all-state

Pickerington Central sophomore defensive back Sonny Styles practices Wednesday in preparation for the state semifinal matchup against Mentor.
Pickerington Central sophomore defensive back Sonny Styles practices Wednesday in preparation for the state semifinal matchup against Mentor. Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch

His stock has risen this summer with 22 offers, including national champion Alabama as well as last season’s other College Football Playoff teams in Clemson, Notre Dame and Ohio State.

Styles’ father, Lorenzo, was an OSU linebacker from 1992-94 before being drafted in the third round in 1995 by the Atlanta Falcons. He was a linebacker on the St. Louis Rams’ Super Bowl-winning team in 1999.

Older brother Lorenzo Jr. is an incoming freshman at Notre Dame.

13.  Brenan Vernon, DL, junior, Mentor

The junior is listed as the No. 2 overall 2023 recruit in Ohio and No. 39 overall in the nation by 247Sports. Given a five-star listing, Vernon recently committed to Notre Dame, becoming the first top-50 player from Ohio since Jackson Carman in 2018 to commit to a school other than Ohio State. The Buckeyes, along with Alabama, Penn State and Tennessee, were among his other primary suitors. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Vernon has started for the Cardinals since his freshman season, despite battling multiple injuries, including a torn labrum and a foot injury that required offseason surgery. He led Mentor to the 2020 Division I state semifinals in 2020 with a 9-2 record. 

14.  Ryan Baer, OL, senior,Eastlake North

Eastlake North's Ryan Baer is ranked the No. 13 2022 recruit in the state. He helped Eastlake North rush for over 300 yards per game and did not surrender a sack. He holds a number of Power 5 offers.
Eastlake North's Ryan Baer is ranked the No. 13 2022 recruit in the state. He helped Eastlake North rush for over 300 yards per game and did not surrender a sack. He holds a number of Power 5 offers. Provided by Eastlake North football

The senior is ranked as the No. 13 overall 2022 recruit in Ohio, and the No. 38 offensive tackle in the 247Sports Composite rankings. The three-star Baer been recruited by a number of Power-5 teams in the region, with the expectation that his decision will ultimately be between the Big Ten's Michigan State and the SEC's Kentucky. Baer is a towering presence up front, standing 6-foot-7, 320 pounds. That helped Eastlake North average 300 rushing yards a game, while Baer did his part in the passing game as well by not allowing a sack.

15.  Alex Afari, DB, senior, Lakota West

Lakota West's Alex Afari (2) reacts during their 21-0 win over Mason, Friday, Oct. 2, 2020.
Lakota West's Alex Afari (2) reacts during their 21-0 win over Mason, Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. TONY TRIBBLE FOR THE ENQUIRER

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound three-star Afari was first-team All-Ohio according to coaches and media as a junior. Afari committed to Kentucky on May 7 and is ranked No. 14 in the state of Ohio by 247sports and 38th nationally as an athlete. He had 16 tackles in the defensive backfield for the GMC champion Firebirds, including two interceptions with one being returned for a touchdown. His presence gives Lakota West a pair of Division I defensive backs on the field when he teams with Ohio State commit Jyaire Brown. Both players figure to play both ways as seniors. 

16.  Brody Foley, TE, senior, Anderson

At 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, three-star Foley was voted All-Ohio first-team Division II as a defensive lineman by media and second-team at tight end by coaches. Foley committed to Tennessee on May 8. He’s ranked No. 18 in the state of Ohio by 247sports. Foley caught 25 passes for 237 yards and a score for 7-3 Anderson and also rushed for a touchdown. He was also a presence as a defensive lineman recording a fumble recovery and picking off a pass. 

Anderson wide receiver Brody Foley runs for a long gain after a catch in the game between Kings and Anderson high schools at Anderson Sept. 5, 2020.
Anderson wide receiver Brody Foley runs for a long gain after a catch in the game between Kings and Anderson high schools at Anderson Sept. 5, 2020. JIM OWENS FOR THE ENQUIRER

17.  Stephan Byrd, RB, senior, Canal Winchester

A three-star recruit by both 247Sports and Rivals and a Cincinnati commit, the 6-0, 195-pound Byrd enters his senior season with 4,120 career rushing yards and 52 touchdowns on 603 carries.

The 14th-ranked recruit statewide by Rivals and 16th by 247Sports, Byrd rushed for 1,363 yards and 19 touchdowns on 166 carries last year as the Indians won their first playoff game since 2012. He also led the team in catches (11), receiving yards (262) and touchdown catches (four) and played linebacker for the last several weeks of the season.

A three-year starter, Byrd was named OCC-Capital Offensive Player of the Year, first-team all-district and first-team all-state in Division II and committed to UC last November.

An honorable mention all-state selection as a freshman and first-team honoree as a sophomore, Byrd also has caught nine touchdown passes over the past three years. He also was a key forward on the Canal Winchester basketball team last season and, in track and field, was a regional qualifier in the high jump and shot put but did not compete because of an injury.

Byrd garnered 15 offers, including Kentucky, Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota.

Stephan Byrd, who committed to Cincinnati on Nov. 9, leads the list of returnees for Canal Winchester. Byrd rushed for 1,363 yards and 19 touchdowns on 166 carries as the Indians finished 5-5 overall and 2-4 in the OCC-Capital Division.
Stephan Byrd, who committed to Cincinnati on Nov. 9, leads the list of returnees for Canal Winchester. Byrd rushed for 1,363 yards and 19 touchdowns on 166 carries as the Indians finished 5-5 overall and 2-4 in the OCC-Capital Division. Alex Conrath/ThisWeek

18.  Derrick Shepard, DL, senior, Kettering Alter

The senior four-star defensive lineman, 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds is ranked 12th in Ohio by 247sports.com. He chose Cincinnati over offers from Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa State, Florida State and others. Shepard helped lead the Alter Knights to an 8-3 record and to the Division III state semifinals. 

Kettering Alter's Derrick Shepard is a four-star defensive lineman who is committed to the University of Cincinnati.
Kettering Alter's Derrick Shepard is a four-star defensive lineman who is committed to the University of Cincinnati. Provided by Dan Morrison

19.  Kentrell Marks, RB, senior, Valley Forge

The 6-foot-1, 180-pound three-star running back recently committed to play at Purdue after his first-team All-Ohio season in 2020. Marks is ranked the No. 15 overall 2022 Ohio recruit by 247Sports and No. 39 nationally at running back. After rushing for 666 yards and 10 touchdowns as a sophomore, Marks took advantage of his breakthrough junior season to rush for 1,470 yards and 23 touchdowns in just eight games. That included a 251-yard rushing performance in a Week 6 win over Elyria Catholic.

Valley Forge running back Kentrell Marks was first-team All-Ohio as a junior last season after running for 1,470 yards and 23 touchdowns. He is committed to Purdue.
Valley Forge running back Kentrell Marks was first-team All-Ohio as a junior last season after running for 1,470 yards and 23 touchdowns. He is committed to Purdue. Provided by Stickware via Kentrell Marks

20.  Carter Smith, OT, senior, Olentangy Liberty

Smith, a 6-6, 275-pound offensive tackle, has been a linchpin for a perennially successful Patriots team that is 18-4 over the past two seasons and has amassed more than 6,800 yards of offense in that time.

Smith, who committed to Indiana on June 23 after receiving 23 offers, is ranked 20th overall statewide by 247Sports and 38th by Rivals and is considered a three-star recruit. He also is a right-side hitter for the boys volleyball team, which won its second regional championship in three seasons.

Smith was named second-team all-OCC-Central and second-team all-state last year in Division I as Liberty went 8-2 and lost to Springfield 19-0 in the Region 2 final. The Patriots were a Region 3 semifinalist in 2019.

Liberty averaged 28.6 points and 323.3 yards per game last year.

Smith also had considered Mississippi, Northwestern, Tennessee and Virginia before choosing the Hoosiers following an official visit the previous week. He was the seventh member of Indiana’s recruiting class and fourth to commit in less than a week, according to The Daily Hoosier.

Olentangy Liberty's Carter Smith (65), Ryan Repasky (56) and the rest of the offensive line look to the sideline for the play before getting set during a game against Dublin Coffman on Sept. 4, 2020, at Olentangy Liberty High School in Powell, Ohio.
Olentangy Liberty's Carter Smith (65), Ryan Repasky (56) and the rest of the offensive line look to the sideline for the play before getting set during a game against Dublin Coffman on Sept. 4, 2020, at Olentangy Liberty High School in Powell, Ohio. Shane Flanigan/ThisWeek

Cincinnati football: Summer rankings for Top 22 Greater Cincinnati football players from Class of '22

21.  Kaleb Johnson, RB, senior, Hamilton

Hamilton running back Kaleb Johnson runs the ball in the playoff game between Hamilton and Fairfield at Fairfield High School Nov. 8, 2019.
Hamilton running back Kaleb Johnson runs the ball in the playoff game between Hamilton and Fairfield at Fairfield High School Nov. 8, 2019. JIM OWENS FOR THE ENQUIRER

The 6-foot-1, 215-pound  three-star running back had 789 yards rushing in the same backfield with senior Keyshawn Stephens, who had 1,115 as a first-team All-Ohio selection. Johnson was honorable mention All-Ohio. He ran for 878 yards as a sophomore. Johnson committed to play for the California Golden Bears June 21 and is ranked No. 17 by 247sports in Ohio. 

Best of the rest

Isaiah Jones, LB, London; Charlie Kenrich, athlete, Lakota East; Ethan Green, OT, Fremont Ross; Markim McKinnie, DB-RB, Akron Hoban, senior; Mani Powell, LB, Canton McKinley; Jonathan Thompson, RB/DB, Columbus DeSales; Christopher Jackson, LB, Toledo Central Catholic; Aiden Lal, RB-WR, Hudson, senior; Drew Ramsey, athlete, Elder, Brogan McCaughey, QB, St. Xavier; Cole Canter, QB, Newark Catholic; Willtrell Hartson, RB, Massillon Washington; Hunter Hopperton, TE/LB, Streetsboro; Aveon Grose, S, Mansfield Senior; Jaylen Jennings, RB, Canal Winchester Harvest Prep; John Jackson, DL, Barberton; Mason Mennell, OL, Stow; Xavier Preston, RB, Stow; Daniel Tooson, OL/DL, Columbus Hartley; Beau Brungard, New Middletown Springfield; Kwabena Asamoah, OG, Pickerington Central; Maurice Hamilton, OG, Cleveland Heights.

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