Michigan has convinced countless Ohioans to travel north and play football for the maize and blue for several decades, transforming them into home-state pariahs in the process.
Urban Meyer is hoping to reverse that history. Consider Damon Webb the first in a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
Since Meyer took over in late 2011, Ohio State’s zeroed in on the Wolverine State – Cass Tech in particular. The football powerhouse, located in downtown Detroit, has long been a Michigan and Michigan State pipeline. Since 2008, Michigan has welcomed 10 Cass Tech alums to campus.
“Michigan is always going to be Michigan,” Cass Tech defensive coordinator Jermain Crowell told Eleven Warriors. “Kids that grow up in the state of Michigan want to go to Michigan. So if an out-of-state school comes in they have to do a really good job of establishing a relationship with the kids. With [Ohio State] getting Damon Webb, he and his father are very active and vocal in how well they treat Damon.”
Now, coaches and players sense the Buckeyes gaining ground on Michigan, even head coach Thomas Wilcher, a former Michigan player under Bo Schembechler. The Buckeyes have extended offers to four Cass Tech players – running back Mike Weber (2015), defensive end Joshua Alabi (2015), offensive lineman Michael Onwenu (2016) and wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones (2017). None of the four have committed, but Ohio State’s expected to remain a serious suitor till the bitter end.
“Michigan and Michigan State have made a big impact on Cass because it’s the home state,” Weber said Sunday at the Nike FTC in Columbus. “But I think Ohio State has really come in the mix as far as offering our guys, and a lot of them are considering Ohio State. I look forward to Ohio State being one of the top pipelines for Cass.”
Weber, who’s recently attracted headlines and misspellings, may have tipped his hand with the last comment. But he’s still considering Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Michigan and Tennessee. His college decision won’t come until the U.S. Army All-American game next January. That doesn’t mean the Buckeyes will lay low.
With just three players committed in the current class, Ohio State’s been courting Weber like a potential prom date. There have been flashy mailings and a swanky new locker room to impress him. Weber said there’s contact from Meyer, Kerry Coombs and Stan Drayton during every live period. No school is pursuing him more actively right now.
But he admits a winning program, good coaches, positive environment and solid academics are the factors being weighed in his decision. It doesn’t sound like a huge removal from Cass Tech. The Technicians won state titles in 2011 and 2012, claim 32 Division I players since 1997 and 15 NFL alumni in the league’s history. One of those NFL players is former Buckeye Vernon Gholston.
“Ohio State makes an impact at Cass Tech and in Detroit,” Wilcher said. “They make themselves visible in the state and city. They want to dominate the Midwest and they’re very comfortable in Michigan. The things the coaches do always make me smile because I’m like ‘Gosh, these guys work hard.’”
At the top of the list is Kerry Coombs, who’s quickly learned every bump and curve in I-75 North. His frequency in the halls of Cass Tech has led some teachers to wonder whether he’s the first gray-haired student. Not really, but he’s become a constant guest. Peoples-Jones believes Coombs’ visits contributed to his offer after taking notice when watching other players.
“Kerry Coombs is one of my favorite recruiters,” Crowell said. “He did a really good job with Damon Webb. They offered People-Jones, Michael Onwenu, they’re looking at LaVert Hill, I know they’re one of Mike Weber’s early favorites. They’re doing a really good job. The impact is evident.”
Said Onwenu: “He’s always energized. Whenever he sees you, he’s happy.”
Soon after being hired, Meyer made Cass Tech a recruiting priority. The opportunity to break up a rival’s monopoly and cash in on its own riches appealed to Ohio State’s new leader. Securing a commitment from Webb was the beginning of what Meyer hopes is a warm relationship.
The four-star cornerback was the top prospect in the state of Michigan. In other words, he was destined to wear a winged helmet, touch the M Club banner and sing “The Victors.” Instead, the Buckeyes better suited Webb and he sensed the Wolverines felt they didn’t need to consume themselves with flattering a homegrown kid who belonged in Ann Arbor.
“[Ohio State] didn’t come in with the attitude that all our kids were going to go to Michigan,” Crowell said. “They came in and tried to disprove that. They thought Michigan goes into Ohio and pulls out a lot of their best players, so they felt like they could return the favor and get some of the to players out of the state of Michigan, and we happen to have some of them.”
Michigan would be wise in not making the same tactical mistake with Peoples-Jones, a legacy player whose father played for the Wolverines. He currently holds a single offer, and it’s from Ohio State. There was a smattering of Ohio State-Michigan jokes, but the overriding sentiment was elation.
“It was very special for Ohio State to offer me first,” Peoples-Jones said. “I’ll always remember that Ohio State offered me first. I’ll always have them high because they were the first ones that gave me a chance. [My family] was proud of all the hard work I put in and that the results are showing.”
Over the next three years, he hopes to become faster, stronger and add height. Peoples-Jones is currently 6-foot-1, but believes he’ll shoot up to 6-4 or 6-5. Most important during the recruiting process is relationships and feeling comfortable.
The competition level at Cass Tech was palpable on Sunday when a litter of players turned in impressive performances, including Onwenu, who took home offensive lineman MVP honors.
“That was huge. I came in thinking I needed it,” he said.
Onwenu called Ohio State’s offer “a big deal.” It won’t speed up his recruitment, though – he said he’ll wait to make a decision until his senior year. And those few years might involve him rooting for Michigan and Michigan State over the Buckeyes, as he did in 2013. That admission came with a wry smile. Or Ohio State’s offer may change his rooting habits.
“I think it’s great to have schools like Ohio State come in and recruit our kids and want to make an impact at our school,” Wilcher said. “As long as we have kids here, they’re going to want to try and get kids out of our school. As you saw [Sunday], we have some great kids. I think it’s great to have Ohio State come in because they’re a big BCS school, and that’s who we want coming in.”
It’s only the beginning.