In the modern recruiting rankings era, a period that covers nearly two decades, Ohio State has never signed the best recruiting class in college football.
At times, the Buckeyes have been close. During the tenure of former coach Urban Meyer, the program three times signed classes that finished as high as second in the nation. But the recruiting crown remains elusive — at least until next February.
With 15 verbal commitments from high school juniors, all but two of them considered blue-chip prospects, the Buckeyes built the early pieces for a 2021 recruiting class to challenge for the top spot. The group is ranked No. 1 in the composite rankings of recruiting services compiled by 247Sports.
Holding onto that ranking will require some adjustments over the next 10 months during the coronavirus pandemic.
Last week, the NCAA extended the recruiting dead period through the end of May because of the public health crisis, a step that continues to cut out in-person recruiting and eliminates the spring evaluation period, a six-week stretch when college coaches scout players at their high schools.
Mark Pantoni, the Buckeyes’ director of player personnel who oversees their recruiting arm, called it a "significant loss" during a recent conference call with reporters.
"That’s just another checkmark in the full evaluation process," Pantoni said.
The absence of a spring evaluation period is coupled with the possible loss of summer prospect camps, which at Ohio State have been canceled through July 6. Camps serve as another critical juncture for coaches to make in-person evaluations of players and extend scholarship offers.
Think of players as being on a waiting list. Now Ohio State’s coaching staff has fewer chances to observe them. Any scholarship offers would require a serious leap of faith.
"We’re going to have to really trust our eyes on the film," Pantoni said. "Some of these 2021 kids that we were hoping to make final decisions on, either by watching them practice live or having them in camp, that may be in jeopardy now. The film is going to take a lot of weight."
Most of the film available to recruiters is from games. Pantoni said the recruiting staff largely has been unable to ask secure video of recruits working out.
"Most high schools are shut down right now, so they can’t really go anywhere," he said. "Training centers are closed down. Our players are struggling with that, too, with finding places to train. We’re really just relying on game film."
Wiping away the spring evaluation is going to have the biggest effect on the Buckeyes’ recruiting class for 2021, according to Pantoni, even as they have assembled a majority of the class and are positioned well ahead of their rivals; nationally, only five other schools hold double-digit commitments for the current recruiting cycle.
"There may be some stuff on film that we’re not sure about," Pantoni said, "so we were hoping to get a live eval at a practice or a camp to say, ‘Yeah, this guy is good enough’ or, ‘Hey, this guy is what we thought.’ "
While grounded in Columbus, the staff has put more effort into recruiting classes beyond 2021, watching film of prospects in the 2022 class. Had it not been for the current recruiting limitations, Pantoni said that would "definitely not have happened this early."
He recalled a recent conversation with OSU defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs, who had been watching tape of some high school sophomores.
"He’s like, ‘These guys aren’t very good,’ " Pantoni recalled. "I said, ‘I know, Kerry, they’re 14, 15 years old.’ These coaches aren’t used to watching these guys this early."
Noting their youth, Pantoni said he stressed for coaches not to cut the recruits from their list of targets.
"If anything, it just gives you that initial preview of who they are," Pantoni said, "what their upside is gonna be over the next couple of years."