The Rise of Zach Smith

By Kyle Rowland on February 18, 2014 at 9:15a

One year ago, Zach Smith deemed himself a failure at recruiting. He gave himself a 2 out of 5 in a scathing self-evaluation.

“Not even close to expectations/capability,” Smith wrote.

Head coach Urban Meyer was equally as cutting, questioning his wide receivers coach’s recruiting production and work ethic, value to the staff and practice demeanor. Smith’s reclamation project began during the season when his unit produced enough yards and touchdowns that nearly resulted in a national championship game appearance.

But Smith’s improvements on the recruiting trail acted as a cherry on top, ribbon and scratch-n-sniff sticker all in one. He played a significant role in Ohio State landing Johnnie Dixon and Jalyn Holmes, beating out the likes of Alabama, Clemson, Florida State and Florida. Smith was named the Big Ten recruiter of the year by Rivals and Scout.

“He knocked it out of the park this year,” Meyer said.

Recruiting has never been an issue for the Buckeyes. Attracting the nation’s best football players to a tradition-rich program like Ohio State with elite coaches and world-class facilities is akin to convincing senior citizens to travel to Florida during the winter. But the state of the Buckeyes’ current recruiting efforts has never been better.

In three seasons under Meyer, back-to-back-to-back top-five classes have been signed. And in the past two seasons, Ohio State’s welcomed more out-of-state prospects than Ohioans for the first time in school history. Meyer and his cadre of assistants have navigated every corner of the country to discover blue-chippers.

Tom Herman, Kerry Coombs, Mike Vrabel and even newly hired Larry Johnson have garnered accolades for their hauls in recent years. Now, Smith can shed his negative recruiting persona and gain deserved praise. He spent several weeks in South Florida, his new recruiting territory, glad-handing high school coaches and reestablishing relationships from his days at the University of Florida.

“I don’t really care about being overlooked or under publicized, but I’m really proud of the commitments that I was able to bring in this year,” Smith said. “I’m really, really proud of it, and I’m confident in my ability to go out and do it again next year and take it to another level.”

Smith’s old recruiting ground included the East Coast, an area Johnson now occupies. But before Johnson took over, Smith convinced Holmes, a defensive lineman, to leave Virginia and come to Ohio State. Credit Vrabel with the assist. However, Smith’s participation should not go unnoticed. He was also heavily involved in the pursuit of Noah Brown, a wide receiver from New Jersey.

“He knocked it out of the park this year.”– Urban Meyer

Another assist went to four-year-old Cameron Smith.

“No. 1 is the Ohio State brand, but No. 2 is the relationship,” Meyer said. “I see that when I walk into Jalyn Holmes’ house and he’s on FaceTime with Zach Smith’s son. I knew we were in pretty good shape when I see that he has that type of relationship with Zach’s son.” 

In December, Smith’s astute work contributed to Dixon landing in Columbus. The four-star wide receiver picked the Buckeyes over Alabama and Miami, calling Smith “my guy.” Ohio State’s staff is filled with a blend of youth and old-school experience. Smith is a member of Generation Y and that youthfulness has generated a connection with recruits.

“We became almost like best friends,” Dixon said of his relationship with Smith. “During the process, we talked pretty much every day. He’s just a great guy. He’s still young, so we just had a good connection. I can joke with him and we can just connect in a lot of different areas as far as a player and a coach. We have a great relationship.”

Said Mark Pantoni, Ohio State’s resident recruiting expert: “Zach Smith did an incredible job with [Dixon]. The relationship I have and Coach Meyer has with his high school coach helped us a little bit, but at the end of the day, Zach got that one. Zach being a young guy understands social media. He’s really good at relating to kids. Down there [South Florida] just being at Florida for a long time, you need a guy who can relate to the kids down there and the swag factor. He’ll do great down there.”

Where Smith might differ from most coaches, who at times are guilty of telling players what they want to hear, is he’s full of the truth. That honesty acts as constructive criticism to can’t-miss prospects and, somewhat surprisingly, is a receptive message.

In a sport run amuck with used car and snake oil salesmen, an honest method is a refreshing change of pace for recruits who become overwhelmed with a tiring, drawn out process.

“With kids and recruiting, they get nonsense thrown at them 24/7 by everyone,” Smith said. “If you’re real with them and they are halfway intelligent, they figure out this guy is real and everyone else is full of it. I think the best thing I did this year was develop those relationships to the point where they said, ‘All right, this guy is going to take care of me, he’s real, and what I see is what I get.’

“I went down and watched Johnnie Dixon practice and I told him a couple times, ‘That was awful,’ and then we talked about it.”

Awful is not a word Meyer used. Nor Cameron. Zach Smith earned his keep in 2014. 

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