Urban Meyer couldn’t help himself. During spring practice, he kept mentioning freshmen by name. After the defense faltered in 2013, the onus was on coaches to recruit impact players. Meyer is of the belief that they did exactly that.
So it didn’t come as a surprise that Raekwon McMillan, a coveted linebacker from Georgia, was on Meyer’s mind. McMillan enrolled early, taking part in spring drills and turning heads immediately. What was unexpected was Meyer’s unprovoked name-dropping of Erick Smith, which happened multiple times in a three-month span.
It began on National Signing Day.
“Erick Smith, he’s a guy I'm really excited to get here,” Meyer said. He played corner in the [U.S. Army All-American Bowl], but we plan on putting him at safety. And, once again, immediately [on the depth chart].”
Four months later, Smith has finally arrived at Ohio State, enrolling over the weekend after playing in the inaugural Ohio-Michigan Border Classic. It was in Findlay where Smith got a glimpse of the competition he would face in the Big Ten. He competed against future rivals and endured his first taste of losing to Michigan.
The 27-14 defeat didn’t sit well with Smith, who wasn’t interested in making excuses but pointed out the obvious: most of Ohio’s top players were far from Donnell Stadium. If anything, Smith will use the loss as motivation when he sees two teams in the month of November representing the state of Michigan.
“Oh, yeah, for sure. I’m not going to forget this,” he said.
Meyer and others likely won’t forget Smith if he lives up to the immense hype surrounding him. He joins two fellow Glenville recruits – Marcelys Jones and Marshon Lattimore – in a long line of former Tarblooders who have suited up in scarlet and gray. And Smith reminds spectators of one in particular.
During a three-year career, Donte Whitner developed a reputation for being one of the hardest hitters in college football. He was named first-team all-Big Ten as a junior, before being a top-10 draft pick the next spring. Whitner took the same punishing style to the NFL, where he’s been a two-time Pro Bowler.
Ted Ginn, Sr.’s seen them all. His son, Troy Smith, Whitner, and now, the current crop of Buckeyes. He views Erick Smith is the same light as Whitner and believes the versatile defensive back could be among his best players.
“No question [he’s one of the best],” Ginn said. “Erick is a football player. He’s a grown man playing this game. He’s going to continue to get better. He’s going to hit you, he’s a striker. He’s going to knock your head off.
“With all these teams playing the spread, you don’t lose anything with Erick by playing him at safety. You gain something because he’s a safety who can play corner. You can play him in the box, on the hash and you can line him outside and he can man up.”
The words Meyer spoke on signing day – playing Smith at safety – should stick, considering the Buckeyes have established depth at cornerback. As Ginn alluded to, Smith’s athleticism is an asset when a safety can rove the field with speed and power. That’s what made him a four-star recruit, top-50 player nationally and a U.S. Army All-American.
In the biggest games, Smith delivered masterful performances. He returned an interception for a touchdown in a state semifinal win last season and followed it up with 10 tackles and a forced fumble in the state championship game. This past week, he went up against Lattimore, who suited up as a wide receiver. The friends and teammates enjoyed the competition.
“He’s a great player,” Lattimore said. “I gave him my all. He’ll make me better and I'll make him better.”
The duo made recruiting visits together, but Smith admitted they were not a package deal. Each had their own individual thoughts and they differed on various schools. But when the recruiting process neared its conclusion, Smith and Lattimore were both high on Ohio State and favored the idea of continuing their careers with each other.
For over a year, the point man on Smith’s recruitment was Everett Withers. It sent shockwaves back to Glenville when Withers left for James Madison. With Chris Ash aboard, he and Smith developed a quick rapport, which never put his commitment to Ohio State in danger.
“He's cool. He's real cool,” Smith said. “For him to come in late, we established a nice relationship.”
Recruits are advised to pick a school based on the university and football program, not coaches – they can be fired or take another job at any time. Smith heeded that advice, saying he fell in love with Ohio State football and then grew fond of the people involved with the program.
Of course, Smith also had the advantage of watching his Glenville heroes play for the Buckeyes during his childhood. Their work ethic and resulting success impacted Smith. He’s kept those lessons with him over the years.
Surveying the landscape, Smith now wishes he had enrolled early. If you listen to Meyer’s comments, though, it doesn’t sound like he’ll have considerable ground to make up. Smith is eager for the challenge and embracing all that comes with playing for Ohio State.
"I want to make the best of my opportunities,” he said. “I’m not going to back down because I'm a freshman. Proving people wrong is used as motivation. I’m fearless. I've been playing football too long to be scared. I'm ready to step out there. I just have to remain patient. I love competition.”
Said Ginn: “When he’s in position, he can use his hat. When you have a guy who can play corner and you play him at safety, that’s a hell of a guy.”