Write off the concept of “brotherhood” as a sports cliche or a buzz word flippantly tossed around locker rooms all you want –– that doesn’t make the term any less fitting for the Ohio State football program.
More than a word readily recited from the mouths of coaches, star players and backups alike, the bonds formed in the Buckeye program are visible when Braxton Miller returns to Columbus for a men’s basketball game in mid-January or Johnnie Dixon shows up hours before kickoff in Arizona for his former team’s bowl game.
It’s the reason junior running back J.K. Dobbins announced to social media he would “forever be a Buckeye” even after declaring for the draft, referencing “relationships that will last [him] a lifetime.”
Those relationships begin forming right away, and a new batch of 24 freshmen will soon start building their own –– though with 14 midyear enrollees and the power of social media, the cycle has already commenced for some.
“We talk to them. That’s gang. That’s little bro,” freshman wide receiver Jameson Williams said about top-rated wide receiver recruit Julian Fleming and the three other incoming wideouts. “[We tell them] what they can come in and do next year, how big of a family this is.”
Williams and fellow freshman wide receiver Garrett Wilson combined for 544 yards and six touchdowns in their first season –– though Wilson had the lionshare –– and with three senior receivers leaving the program, there will be even more opportunity for the pair, along with the four top 20 wideout recruits.
Another receiving option with potential for a big year is sophomore tight end Jeremy Ruckert, whose one-handed touchdown grab in the Big Ten Championship was one of the most photogenic moments of the Buckeyes’ season.
He just finished his second year in the program, but he’s already taken on the mentorship role for incoming top 10 tight end Joe Royer from Elder High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. Ruckert said he hosted Royer on one of his recruiting visits and has hung out with him several times.
Two years has been long enough for Ruckert to whittle down his experiences into wisdom with which to impart Royer and other program newcomers.
“Come in with an open mind and not expect anything,” Ruckert said. “Expectations only make you disappointed, or they’re just so far out of reach. So you could have goals, but to expect things to be given to you, that’s not going to help with your growth as a player. I think coming in with an open mind and ready to help the team any way you can –– that was my mindset coming in, and I think it’s paid off.”
Some young players won’t seek advice from veterans, though. Even senior safety Jordan Fuller, a team captain the past two seasons, said he was “very shy” when he first came to Ohio State.
“I remember myself not wanting to be a burden to anybody,” Fuller said. “So If I had a question, I probably wouldn’t ask.”
Other players make a point to reach out to the incoming crop. Redshirt sophomore offensive guard Wyatt Davis said his first mentor at Ohio State was Matt Burrell –– a four-star offensive lineman from the class of 2015 who ended up transferring out before he or Davis ever got a start.
It was another eventual transfer with whom redshirt freshman running back Master Teague struck a particular bond. Antonio Williams, a top 10 running back from the class of 2016, was the first to reach out to Teague.
“Of course he went to UNC, but he was kind of like a big brother figure for me and I really looked up to him when I came in,” Teague said. “When I went on recruiting visits, he was there. I talked a lot with him, so I had a good connection with him.”
It was a relationship that Teague may not have had with Dobbins, whom the Buckeyes strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti said took years to develop into a leader. Teague called his relationship with Dobbins “decent,” and said, “There’s always things that could be better.”
In the days leading up to the Fiesta Bowl, Teague said he hadn’t yet reached out to incoming Buckeye running back Miyan Williams, but said he planned to in the near future.
Marotti said the next step for Teague, who will likely replace Dobbins as a starter next season, is to step into a leadership role. Despite his quiet nature, Teague said he wants to be an approachable figure for the new Buckeyes.
“I want to be a leader for the guys and be kind of big brother, somebody they can lean on and talk to and I want to be there for them,” Teague said. “Not just be too big, be too great to talk to. To go down and talk to people and be humble. So I just want to be there, if I can, for everybody.”