Anatomy of a Powerhouse: Ohio State football keeps churning out NFL players
Editor's note: How did Ohio State football become a Buckeye Nation of true believers? In a 14-part series, we explore aspects that shaped OSU's evolution from Saturday afternoon diversion to near-religious experience.
Today: The factory
As hard as it may be to imagine now, James Laurinaitis had exactly two choices when it came to playing college football.
A lightly recruited linebacker from Minneapolis, the three-star recruit landed offers from Ohio State and Minnesota. The assumption was that he would stay close to home, join close friend Dominique Barber at the next level and try to raise the profile of the Golden Gophers. It took an official visit to firmly change Laurinaitis’ mind, and among the key turning points was his hope of one day playing in the NFL.
A shot at the league wasn’t the only factor that led to his picking Ohio State rather than Minnesota in December 2004, but it was an important part of the equation.
“If you had to pick a place where you could go to where you said at least if I play here, I should have an opportunity to at least get (into an NFL) camp … I didn’t want to play four years at Minnesota and be a good player but get overlooked because you went to the Gophs at the time,” Laurinaitis told The Dispatch. “Whereas, if you played for three years, two years at Ohio State, you get a way deeper look.
“It did factor into my mind.”
That decision hardly makes Laurinaitis an anomaly. He grew into an All-American linebacker and won several individual postseason awards at Ohio State. After he was taken in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft, he enjoyed an eight-year NFL career. In doing so, he became one of the 480 Buckeyes to play at that level.
It’s a history that dates to 1936, when Gomer Jones and Dick Heekin were drafted in the second and eighth rounds, respectively.
Since that first draft, an average of 5.7 Buckeyes have been selected each year. In 2004, Ohio State had 14 players taken, setting an NFL record since the draft was shortened to seven rounds 25 years ago (the record was tied by LSU this year).
It’s clear that, across the board, Ohio State players are viewed through a certain lens when NFL teams are evaluating prospects.
“I think they clearly see a program that’s run as closely to an NFL team as you could at that level,” Mike Vrabel, current coach of the Tennessee Titans and a two-time All-American while at Ohio State from 1993-96, told The Dispatch.
“I think there’s a lot of talent. You understand they’re going to be talented and well-coached. They’re going to be part of a program that has a schedule, that has things that are detailed and has accountability. But in the end, it comes down to talent.”
While Ohio State has long enjoyed a tradition of having players taken in the NFL draft, the flow has accelerated in recent years. Since 2000, the Buckeyes have had a nation-best 141 players drafted, 14 more than second-place Alabama.
It has helped that, during the same time, college coaches have been increasingly recruiting a generation of players often raised to believe that an NFL spot is a birthright.
When dealing with players who plan on being in the NFL in as little as three years, Ohio State assistant coach Kerry Coombs said spending time in a program overseen by Mickey Marotti, the OSU coach in charge of "sport performance," is recognized as a benefit by NFL talent evaluators.
“Mickey Marotti is a highly respected person in the football community nationally and I think those general managers have a lot of trust and faith in his evaluation of our players and his development,” said Coombs, who spent two seasons as Vrabel’s cornerbacks coach with the Titans. “I think his reputation and what he does with the players really is dramatic.”
Coombs and his fellow Ohio State coaches have no shortage of talking points when meeting with recruits. In general, though, there is a two-pronged belief the Buckeyes try to impress on the young men they are recruiting, Coombs said.
“What I tell kids that I recruit, and really players on our team, is that we really want to spend our time with people who want to be the best in the world at what they do,” he said. “The measuring stick for that is really twofold. It’s winning championships as a team and it’s being able to be recognized and promoted at the next level, which means being drafted.”
That means bringing as much talent in as possible, even if it doesn’t always get on the field. Laurinaitis said sometimes just being on Ohio State’s roster gives a player an opportunity he wouldn’t otherwise have at a less-heralded school, something Vrabel said is recognized among NFL circles.
“When you recruit good players and you develop them and coach them and train them hard for three or four years, they become better and they move on to the next level,” he said. “(NFL personnel) see that Ohio State has done that.”
Former Ohio State head coach John Cooper, who would go on to work as a scouting consultant for the Cincinnati Bengals after being fired in January 2001, said that while Ohio has always produced talented football players, expanding the recruiting base to what is now a nationwide network has helped ensure that the Buckeyes will put players into the NFL who not only make a roster but also excel.
“Look at Ohio State’s roster,” Cooper said in pointing to some of the players he and his staff brought in. “We got David Boston out of Texas. We got Joe Germaine out of Arizona. We got Eddie George out of Philadelphia, Michael Wiley out of San Diego.”
Laurinaitis pointed to Joey and Nick Bosa (Fort Lauderdale, Florida), Ezekiel Elliott (St. Louis), Michael Thomas (California) and current quarterback Justin Fields (Georgia) as recent examples of that approach paying off in a big way.
He called it the “NFL-ification” of the program.
“A kid in southern California can look up and be like, ‘Damn, I want to be like Joey Bosa someday. I wonder where he went to college. Ohio State? Oh, and he’s one of the highest-paid D-linemen? They must develop them there,’ ” Laurinaitis said.