When Ohio State’s Champions’ Club recently convened, a rare sight unfolded in the Fawcett Center. Mingling with a group of upperclassmen were two true freshmen who have never played a down for the Buckeyes.
Already, Raekwon McMillan and Johnnie Dixon have broken into the exclusive club. It’s not Augusta National, but Urban Meyer doesn’t offer free handouts.
“[They earned it] in the spring,” Meyer said of the two early enrollees. “It’s rare. I don’t really think we’ve ever had freshmen in the Champions’ Club. They’re over 3.0 (GPA) students, take care of their business, act like pros, act like grown men. So we let them practice with the grown men today.”
The morning session consisted of rookies, before the veterans gathered for an afternoon practice under sunny skies on the outdoor fields at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
McMillan and Dixon were both must-get recruits for Ohio State, the best at their respective positions. Each hails from the South, a fertile recruiting ground that supplies the nation’s best teams with talent. McMillan gives the Buckeyes much-needed support at linebacker, while Dixon adds depth at wide receiver.
Everything in Columbus is about scarlet and gray – except in Meyer’s incentive-based faction. Gold status is coveted by all, but had by few. Those who reap the rewards are served a tasty steak and potatoes dinner as the peasants eat hot dogs off paper plates.
It’s a rank McMillan and Dixon hope to keep, and Meyer longs for more freshmen to join the upstart duo.
A year after an abnormally high amount of first-year players were redshirted – 15 in all – 2014 began with promise for the rookies. Meyer stepped to the podium after practice and gushed about the 23-man freshman class.
“I’m really impressed,” he said. “Just the body types of Dante Booker, Kyle Berger, Sam Hubbard, all the way to Noah Brown, Parris Campbell – long athletes. Then you have Marshon [Lattimore] and Erick Smith. We’re going to try and get those guys ready to play. Really good day with the young guys.”
Impact freshmen are who Meyer recruits. He doesn’t simply want players who will turn into elite college players over time; he wants them ready-made to succeed. Last year served as a lesson when the bulk of one of the nation’s top-rated recruiting classes stood on the sidelines.
“That’s my fault, especially on defense. I was disappointed,” Meyer said. “We had six to seven players who didn’t play who are very good players.”
The group of didn’t-plays or played-sparingly includes Vonn Bell, Gareon Conely, Eli Apple, Mike Mitchell and Jalin Marshall. Mitchell, a five-star linebacker, transferred to Texas Tech in the spring. The remaining quartet is expected to contribute in 2014. Or as Meyer says, “They have to.”
Throughout Meyer’s career, freshmen have been vital to his team’s success. In 2006, Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin helped guide Florida to a national championship. It’s an era where first-year players are advanced enough to play for college football’s best programs. Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy as freshmen. During the first decade of the 2000s, there was a three-year stretch of sophomores winning the bronze stiff-arm trophy.
It’s play now, win now. And there’s reason to believe the current freshmen and beyond will enter college even more seasoned than their predecessors. A new NCAA rule allows coaches to meet with players for up to two hours per week, a change many Big Ten coaches at media days were calling a game-changer.
“It’s awesome. We had several meetings with our freshmen [during the summer],” Meyer said. “We’re able to work with our freshmen on the field. Freshmen get homesick – every one of them. Even the ones who say they’re not, they are. It’s big to be around coaches and be able to go to the coach’s home and for us to be able to monitor their academics.”
Names like Demetrius Knox, Curtis Samuel and Jamarco Jones stand out when scanning the 2014 recruiting class. All three – and many more – will receive and opportunity to play when Ohio State takes the field against Navy. But McMillan and Dixon are garnering the most attention.
McMillan enters the fall with much fanfare. He’s expected to push senior Curtis Grant for the starting middle linebacker spot, and if McMillan loses that battle, playing time is still in his future.
“He is a grown man,” Meyer said. “He handles his academics. He’s a mature guy. He has worked very hard this summer off the field to learn this game. He has leadership qualities. I’ll be disappointed if he’s not one of those big names someday at Ohio State.”
That displeasure will extend to the entire Class of 2014 if there aren’t immediate dividends.