When Ohio State head football coach Ryan Day was tabbed as Urban Meyer’s replacement in December 2018, a few key retentions fell out of view from the public eye.
With assistant coaching decisions, two signing days, the Rose Bowl and the transfer of then-sophomore quarterback Justin Fields from Georgia all happening within a few short months, news about Meyer’s support staff — strength and conditioning coaches, recruiting staffers and quality control — staying on with Day took a backseat.
One name from the carryover that’s been critical in these past few months of COVID-19 isolation is Ohio State assistant athletic director for player personnel Mark Pantoni, now entering his ninth season as the football team’s recruiting director.
“We got ahead of this thing. Even in the last year, Mark Pantoni, our staff, has done a great job of staying in touch with this class,” Day said. “From this time last year, we’re working so far ahead, those relationships are really, really strong.”
There’s been no stopping the train of Ohio State commitments rolling through the first months of spring.
Since the Big Ten halted all on- and off-campus in-person recruiting activities March 13, the Buckeyes have landed one three-star commitment, three four-stars and one five-star for the class of 2021.
That doesn’t include a key pickup from the transfer portal in senior running back Trey Sermon, a player with more than 2,000 career rushing yards, to fill out a position room that was down to just one scholarship player in spring practice.
“I think there’s a lot of excitement around the program and what we’re building on both sides of the ball,” Day said. “We’ve been doing this for a while now with this class. There’s been a lot built up. This is not something we just started a few months ago.”
The Buckeyes have widened their lead as the No. 1 recruiting class in the country with 280.61 points. Clemson is No. 2 with 220.98. Clemson is also the only team with an average recruit rating that is higher than Ohio State’s, edging out the Buckeyes 95.59 to 95.34.
Ohio State is setting itself apart in both quantity and quality on the recruiting trail.
Pantoni said Ohio State’s recent momentum is a product of the work it put in early on with recruits.
“We were hoping the spring practice would give us time to get these kids back on campus,” Pantoni said. “We felt like we could close the deal with some of them. With the limitations, I think a lot of them had their minds made up, and coming on campus would just finalize their thoughts.”
Without a way to meet in person, there’s been far more electronic communication to keep prospects and their families in the know.
“Since we can’t see them face to face, we’ve gone way more on the FaceTime calls,” Pantoni said. “I don’t know if it’s good because they all see our ugly grills way more often, so hopefully we don’t scare them away by doing that.”
Another key factor is what current commits are doing to pull others into the class with them, Pantoni said.
Julian Fleming, the No. 1 wide receiver in the class of 2020, said it was former four-star cornerback Lejond Cavazos who convinced him to give the Buckeyes a closer look. The players are now roommates as early enrollees at Ohio State.
Word of mouth among prospects is crucial, Pantoni said, and Ohio State’s word of mouth is strong for 2021.
“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 they haven’t met or met once at a camp or met here on campus.”
Another factor to Ohio State’s early momentum is the change of timeline created by Early Signing Day. As of 2017, recruits can sign during a three-day period in December rather than wait until the traditional first Wednesday of February.
Only one of Ohio State’s 2020 signees, four-star athlete Cameron Martinez, didn’t sign during the early signing period, which allowed the staff to shift focus to 2021 in January.
The Buckeyes now hold 15 commitments for 2021, with at least one top 100 prospect at quarterback, running back, offensive line, wide receiver, defensive tackle, defensive end, linebacker and cornerback.
With more than eight months to go until the next signing period, Ohio State is just tying up loose ends.
“We have a few more positions that we need a few more guys to cover, and we’re working hard at that,” Pantoni said.
Pantoni added that much of Ohio State’s remaining recruiting efforts will be dedicated to maintaining the recruits already committed.
He said the Buckeyes treat each commit as if he is still undecided until the day he signs the dotted line.
“We’re not trying to win any recruiting wars in April,” Pantoni said. “We’ve got a long way to go.”