On Dec. 19, Jaden McKenzie was the “other” defensive lineman who announced his decision to attend Ohio State next year.
Zach Harrison’s decision was the headliner that day. After all, he was a five-star prospect from Olentangy Orange who signed after a pitched recruiting fight that also included Michigan and Penn State. The signing of McKenzie, a three-star tackle from Wake Forest, North Carolina, made a smaller splash, not that he minded.
“Not really,” he said. “Honestly, I’ve been overlooked because I haven’t been to camps. I was a three-star — and a two-star two months before that.”
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McKenzie didn’t go to the camps that often result in bumps up the recruiting rankings because he had surgeries on a broken tibia the summer after his sophomore year and to repair meniscus the next year.
“I think I was better than I was ranked,” McKenzie said. “But to me rankings don’t really mean anything. I don’t worry about it.”
McKenzie knew that if he played well for his high school team, recruiters would eventually come. Wake Forest High School has won 45 straight games, including the last three state titles. The school has produced such stars as Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence and Stanford running back Bryce Love, a Heisman finalist in 2017.
“There were college coaches coming in day-in and day-out because of the previous players we had,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie’s football journey hasn’t been a straight line. His family moved from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina when he was 5, first to Texas for a month and then to North Carolina.
“I was young so I didn’t really know what was going on,” McKenzie said. “I remember me, my mom and my dad evacuating and being in the car for a long time.”
He was a big kid but he didn’t take to football right away. Twice, he stopped playing the sport, the first time when he was a 5-foot-3, 154-pound 11-year-old.
“I was fat and lazy pretty much,” he said with a laugh that often accompanies his conversation. “I was soft. I didn’t like hitting people. I was scared to hit people too hard. My mom used to laugh at me and crack jokes about me all the time because of that. My mom persuaded me to start hitting.”
That’s not usually the way it works with moms and their football-playing sons.
“Yeah, it’s crazy,” McKenzie said.
After again not playing as an eighth-grader before his mom, Quandra, moved her family from Raleigh to Wake Forest, McKenzie resumed playing as a freshman. He still remembers seeing Lawrence for the first time in the locker room.
“He was like a freak of nature,” McKenzie said. “He was humongous. I’d never seen anyone as big as him.”
He played behind Lawrence as a freshman before becoming a starter and earning interest from colleges himself. McKenzie was weighing offers from Wake Forest University and North Carolina before Ohio State’s interest grew during the season and he announced his decision to become a Buckeye on early-signing day.
“I think Jaden is really going to really be a surprise in the class,” Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson said. “I liked him from Day 1. A really athletic guy. He can run and fits our scheme and what we’re looking for. He’s a guy we kind of snuck out of North Carolina and kept quiet about. Next thing you know, he was really excited about us.
McKenzie took his official visit during the weekend of the Michigan game. Good timing.
“It was ridiculous,” McKenzie said of the atmosphere at Ohio Stadium for the 62-39 victory. “It was crazy. It was a fun environment.”
He knew almost right away that he wanted to become a Buckeye, even after Clemson and other top programs offered him a scholarship. McKenzie is 6-3 and 285 pounds. He considers himself primarily a run-stuffer.
“I’m more of a power guy,” he said.
His mom no doubt approves.