In a world seemingly frozen by a pandemic, only seemingly unstoppable forces seem immune to its effects.
Ohio State football recruiting seems to be one of them. Since mid-March, when fears about the coronavirus started causing widespread shutdowns, the Buckeyes have added five players to a 2021 class that numbers 15 so far and is ranked No. 1 nationally.
It has been a stunning run of success. TreVeyon Henderson, a five-star running back from Virginia, committed without having taken a visit and despite a pledge 11 days earlier by four-star North Carolina running back Evan Pryor.
Mark Pantoni, Ohio State’s assistant athletic director for player personnel, oversees the recruiting operation.
"I think it was definitely a product of what we have been building on," Pantoni said in a teleconference with reporters Friday. "Our coaching staff has done a phenomenal job building relationships up to this point."
If this had been a normal year, the plan would have been for recruits to visit during spring practice in hopes of closing the deal. But the Buckeyes had only three practices before the Woody Hayes Athletic Center closed. Spring evaluation camps also have been canceled.
"With the limitations, I think a lot of the kids kind of had their minds made up and coming on campus again would just kind of finalized their thoughts," Pantoni said. "Because of the way things have turned out, they decided to just publicly commit to us."
He credits a number of factors for Ohio State’s success in continuing to get commitments. In addition to the relationships he and coaches have developed with prospects, the Buckeyes’ success, both on the field and as their players go to the NFL, gives them cache. Ohio State’s Real Life Wednesday program, which helps build bridges to the business community, is another asset.
"The Ohio State brand is so strong, it’s not hard to sell," Pantoni said. "There’s so many great reasons to come here."
Even if nobody can physically come here now. Like the rest of the Ohio State football staff, Pantoni has been working from home. He has 4½-year-old twins who aren’t used to having dad around during working hours.
"I give major props to moms out there and teachers who deal with these children all day," Pantoni said, "because it's tested my patience a lot to be able to balance being dad and doing what I have to do for work."
Pantoni has a meeting with his staff via the Zoom video app every Monday to plan for the week. He has conversations continually with Ohio State’s coaches, especially head coach Ryan Day.
"Yeah, it's been difficult," Pantoni said of the logistics.
But there is a bright side. Instead of devoting time to setting up recruits’ visits to Columbus this spring, he has more time to watch video of prospects. So do coaches, particularly Day.
"We've all got a lot more time on our hands," Pantoni said. "So we're checking in on our players nonstop, but we're spending a lot of time on recruiting specifically. Whereas if we were in the middle of spring practice, he’d be really tied down doing that. So it's been helpful."
As impressive as Ohio State’s recruiting success has been, Pantoni understands that the job is never done, even with commitments. Recruits aren’t bound by their pledges. The early signing period isn’t until December.
"So we treat all our commitments like they're not committed and make sure they continue to feel love and remind them why they chose here," Pantoni said.
Peer pressure, or at least peer encouragement, is a big part of that. The best recruiters are often recruits themselves.
"This class has done that better than any class I've ever seen of coming together and going after the top guys," Pantoni said. "Through social media these days, it's easy to connect with guys that maybe they haven't met or maybe met once at a camp or met here on campus just those guys building these relationships and getting the best players to want to come here."
Not even a pandemic has stopped that.