A few players in Ohio State’s incoming recruiting class are within driving distance of Saturday night’s Fiesta Bowl.
Two signees are from Arizona: Jack Miller, a quarterback from Scottsdale, and Lathan Ransom, a safety from Tucson. Another pair are from Southern California: linebacker Kourt Williams and quarterback C.J. Stroud.
As the Buckeyes became a juggernaut under former coach Urban Meyer, their footprint expanded across the country, but they have rarely been as successful plucking talent from the Southwest and West as they were this month.
Since the major recruiting services began tracking recruiting classes in 2002, Ohio State has never signed more players from Arizona, California and Nevada in one class, with four during the early signing period last week, and only twice has it signed multiple players from those three states.
The success coincides with recent struggles of Southern California, the region’s traditional powerhouse, as well as its crosstown rival, UCLA.
The Trojans are 8-4 after finishing below .500 last season and continue to be hampered by questions about coach Clay Helton’s job security. The Bruins have failed to reach a bowl game in consecutive seasons under Chip Kelly.
Among the top-25 recruits in California, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, only one signed with an in-state school: Stanford. In Arizona, only two of the top-25 players signed with USC or UCLA. Three are headed to Arizona and Arizona State.
"A lot of schools are like sharks, and they see blood in the water with a down USC and a down UCLA," said Greg Biggins, a Southern California-based national recruiting analyst for 247Sports.
Clemson, which faces the Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl, signed quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, the third-ranked player in California, for the class of 2020.
As for why the Buckeyes were successful in the Southwest during this cycle, Biggins attributed the presence of Jeff Hafley, the defensive co-coordinator and secondary coach, as one of the biggest reasons.
Hafley, a tireless recruiter, was involved in the pursuit of Ransom and Williams. Had he not taken the Boston College head-coaching job this month, the Buckeyes would have likely signed a fifth player from the region. That was cornerback Clark Phillips III, a native of La Habra, California, who went with Utah after Hafley announced he would leave.
Along with Hafley, the Buckeyes coaching staff also identified the players early in the process, according to Biggins, giving them a boost.
"Obviously, everyone benefited from USC being a little bit down, UCLA being a little bit down," Biggins said. "But I don’t know if I’d say that was the deal-breaker when those guys decided to go to Ohio State. It was a part of it, but not the sole reason. I would give more credit to Ohio State and what a great job they did recruiting, being really selective and zeroing in on those guys."
Coach Ryan Day pondered the scope of Ohio State’s national recruiting effort last week.
Informed that the Buckeyes added players from 13 states, he said, "The world has gotten smaller, I think with the internet, with just the way the world is now."
But his program’s recent success and popularity also helped with that.
"I think the brand of Buckeye Nation is throughout the country, and I think people feel that," Day said. "I think they feel nowadays kids are more inclined to get on a plane and come to school in Ohio. I think that's changed a little bit, maybe more than 20 years ago when it was a little bit more regional-based, I would say."