Cincinnati's top football recruit Malik Hartford of Lakota West chooses Ohio State

Scott Springer
Cincinnati Enquirer

For a second straight year, the top Greater Cincinnati football recruit comes from Lakota West. And, for a second straight year, that recruit will be an Ohio State Buckeye.

Firebirds junior Malik Hartford, a 6-foot-3-inch, 180-pound safety for coach Tom Bolden made his plans known at a press conference streamed live by CBS Sports HQ Wednesday afternoon. Midway through the program, he announced for the Buckeyes and revealed a scarlet Ohio State t-shirt. His mother, Zainab, to his left, and father, Jim, to his right, sported the same design as did his younger brother, Jibril.

St. Xavier High School running back Charles Kellom is chased down by Malik Hartford of Lakota West during a football game at Ballaban Field in Cincinnati Aug. 20, 2021.

Finalists for Hartford's services in addition to Ohio State were the University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame and West Virginia. Late in the game, Penn State and Alabama also offered Hartford.

"It was definitely difficult because I made relationships with all of the coaches," Hartford said of the decision. "It really came down to just the program and the school itself, things that are going to stay and aren't going to leave. Coaches come and go."

Hartford is a 4.2 student on a weighted GPA system at Lakota West and his parents are both engineers. He said his commitment was about off-the-field benefits as on, because football will end.

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Malik Hartford is the latest Lakota West standout to commit to the Ohio State Buckeyes

"He's a great kid with a great family," Bolden said. "On the football field, he is violent. He covers so much ground, so quick. (He's) A special teams' nightmare. If you haven't seen his highlight film, everything just pops."

The website 247Sports.com has listed Hartford as a four-star recruit, the No. 2 junior as well as the No. 5 safety in the nation. He had 58 tackles this past season, a quarterback sack and two interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown. The Firebirds finished 11-2 and 7-0 in the Greater Miami Conference where Hartford was named first team. 

He follows in the footsteps of former Firebirds corner Jyaire Brown, who reported to the Buckeyes in January and was the top-rated Greater Cincinnati recruit. Also from the Firebirds' defensive backfield, Alex Afari signed with Kentucky and juniors Ben Minich and Joshua Fussell are also receiving Division I interest as his sophomore Lakota East transfer Taebron Bennie-Powell. 

"We had Power Five guys all through our defense last year," Hartford said. "We definitely want to make this place DBU and keep it coming for the younger generations."

Offensive lineman Tegra Tshabola of Lakota West also will head to Ohio State as part of coach Ryan Day's West Chester-to-Columbus pipeline. The massive future Buckeye lineman attended Hartford's announcement.

"It's a good thing we get to showcase what we've got here at Lakota West," Tshabola said. "I've known Malik since he was in the seventh grade."

Said Bolden, "How about Ohio State getting three Lakota West football players and three All-Americans? That's pretty special. That helps hopefully make me a good coach when you've got dudes like that. We've got some good ones here."

Interestingly, Hartford was recruited to OSU by defensive backs coach Perry Eliano, formerly a Cincinnati assistant under Luke Fickell. Current UC defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs also recruited Hartford and was instrumental in Brown's commitment to the Buckeyes while he was on Day's staff. 

Overall, Hartford had 25 Division I offers. He's also been invited to play in the 2023 All-American Bowl next January as teammates Brown and Tshabola did earlier this winter.

First things first, Hartford is focused on the Greater Miami Conference and the Lakota West Firebirds. He gave up his prep lacrosse career to prepare for his senior year and prepare for the Big Ten.

"It allows me to focus on my season and try to win a state championship," Hartford said of the early commit.