Three weeks ago, the largest group of early-enrollee freshmen in school history arrived on Ohio State’s campus.
Fourteen blue-chip players graduated high school early to get a jump-start on their college football careers. At this time of year, strength coach Mickey Marotti has more daily interaction with players than coach Ryan Day.
It is too early for Marotti to make definitive judgments about the newest Buckeyes, but they have made a strong first impression since winter conditioning began Jan. 13.Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our BuckeyeXtra newsletter
“They came mentally ready for what's coming,” Marotti said Wednesday. “They came focused. They’re into it. It’s a really good group. We just had a meeting, and everybody in our department talked about how well the freshmen were doing taking care of their business.”
Every January, Marotti meets with the team, including the new freshmen. He describes it as sort of his personal Academy Awards in terms of importance. It wipes the slate clean from the previous season and sets the tone for the new one.
“You map out what the next seven to eight weeks are going to be about and how you can change and how you can improve and enhance,” Marotti said.
He was surprised by the reaction from some of the freshmen.
“Most of the time, freshmen are like, ‘Oh, this is hard,’ ” Marotti said, adding that this year, “We had a couple guys right away — (receivers) Julian Fleming and Gee Scott — say, ‘That was the best meeting ever! I can’t wait.’ ”
Marotti appreciated the youthful enthusiasm. He’s also a realist. Winter conditioning will only ramp up.
“We’ll see in mid-February” if their enthusiasm lasts, Marotti said.
But it was telling that Fleming and Scott spoke up. They are part of a four-player class of receivers that might be as talented as any Ohio State position group in a recruiting class in recent memory.
Fleming and Jaxon Smith-Njigba are ranked as five-star prospects. Scott and Mookie Cooper are high four-stars. All rank in the top 87 nationally among all prospects in the 247Sports composite rankings.
“They’re all different,” Marotti said. “They’ve been great. I love their work ethic. I love their focus so far.”
Fleming, from Catawissa, Pennsylvania, is ranked as the No. 3 overall prospect nationally.
“Julian is obviously talented,” Marotti said. “So far, so good.”
He described Scott as having a body like departing senior Austin Mack. Cooper is a well-built 195-pounder who’s likely going to play the hybrid position. Smith-Njigba caught 109 passes for 2,132 yards and 34 touchdowns his senior season playing against top Texas competition.
“I think they can be as good as they want to be,” Marotti said. “But the receivers that have been here in the past have put in an inordinate amount of work to get to where they were.”
Both of Ohio State’s freshman quarterbacks — C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller — are among the early arrivals.
“You can see them being hungry because they’ve got to improve on some things physically,” Marotti said. “You can see at least the vision of, ‘I've got to get there.’ ”
With Justin Fields as the incumbent, the bar has been set high, in the weight room as well as on the field.
“It’s probably not fair to see (by comparison) a 6-foot-3½, 230-pound athlete like Justin that loves to lift weights,” Marotti said.
Stroud and Miller will compete with holdover Gunnar Hoak to be Fields’ backup. That will be an incentive to work particularly hard to be ready.
“You’d think,” Marotti said. “They better be.”
Some freshmen already look the part, with Marotti singling out five-star offensive tackle Paris Johnson.
The early enrollees are working out as one of three separate groups under Marotti’s direction. Established veterans and unproven non-freshmen are the others. The early enrollees are getting particular instruction on technique and coachability before they’ll be gradually integrated with the rest of the team.
Marotti believes there is strength in numbers with these early arrivals.
“It’s easier when there’s a bigger group,” he said. “When there’s three guys, that’s a bad deal; there’s nowhere for them to go. But there’s a big group there. They’re always together. They’re always pushing each other because in that big group, you have more of a chance to have positive leadership early on.”
Marotti enjoys the attention he’s able to devote to the freshmen as they go through the “de-recruitment” phase. When they were in high school, coaches had to court players. Marotti is not much of a fan of that.
“Everybody’s got to be nice to everybody. (Now) I don’t have to be nice to anybody. Some of the stuff I had to go through when they’re on campus recruiting and all the fun stuff …” he said, his words almost dripping with distaste.
“Now it’s real.”