COLUMBUS – The rain began to cascade down in heavier droves, firing away into the Ohio Stadium turf and glistening off the lights that had just served as spotlights to one of this colosseum's most important games of the last five years.
But right now, those lights are shining on just one player, as the monstrous presence of 6-foot-6, 285-pound JC Latham – draped in a scarlet and grey No. 75 jersey and flanked by an Ohio State team photographer at the 50-yard line – lifts his right knee, arches his back, throws his flexing arms behind him and unleashes a vicious roar.
It was less than 90 minutes ago when this arena housed nearly 105,000 roars, but this roar bounces off the now-empty bleachers, echoing off the steel and reverberating onto the puddles of water bubbling on the Shoe’s turf. Maybe it was just the wind, but you could be fooled into thinking it’s Latham’s scream that makes those puddles wave back and forth.
He laughs when that roar is brought up.
“That was just a spur-of-the-moment thing,” Latham told Eleven Warriors. “I was just in the moment.”
Latham brings that type of presence – a grown-ass-man presence. And he’s not the only tank of an offensive tackle Ohio State’s got its eye on.
Ten minutes before Latham’s photoshoot, it was 6-foot-4, 310-pound Donovan Jackson, donning a red No. 77 jersey, walking out to midfield for his own pictures under the rain. Once those photos were posted to Instagram, it was 6-foot-6, 300-pound Tegra Tshabola hesitating, saying to himself that looks like me.
Up high in the Horseshoe press box, it’s not hard to mistake Jackson for Latham or either one for Tshabola. None of them is able to legally buy lottery tickets or gamble on a hand of black jack, but they each already look like an imposing, strong-as-an-ox foundational piece for their respective recruiting classes – Latham and Jackson in 2021; Tshabola in 2022.
You would have to look a long time to find reasons why offensive line coach Greg Studrawa would not want to bring each one into his program as building blocks for the future and key cogs in his O-line.
All three visited this weekend for the Buckeyes’ win over Penn State, each taking different paths but all leading to the long, downhill tunnel from the locker room to the field, where they emerged to see what their life would be like here on Saturdays in the fall.
Latham, ranked as the 74th-best national prospect in his class, visited Columbus by way of IMG Academy, a prep school in Bradenton that is home to 2020 Ohio State commit Lejond Cavazos. He was originally from Mississippi before moving to Wisconsin in third grade and transferring to IMG on Jan. 27 to maximize his potential as a future collegiate defensive end.
Two weeks prior to the season starting, a coach decided that wasn’t the right fit.
“Coach told me I could go into the league at defensive tackle,” Latham said. “It’d still be a lot of hard work, obviously, but he said at left tackle, I could really be a first-rounder and that I’m a natural left tackle.
“Coach told me just to learn the plays and go from there. He wanted me to understand what I needed to do at first. I couldn’t really take everything in at once. To be great, you’ve gotta take things in day-by-day and one step at a time. … It was a smooth transition.”
Latham visited Ohio State in April as a defensive lineman but returned over the weekend as the No. 13-ranked offensive tackle and No. 11-ranked recruit in Florida, and he’s one of the Buckeyes’ biggest – in size and importance – prospects in the 2021 class. He visited with his father, Jerome, his cousin Adam and his brothers Milo and Langston.
Langston is a 2022 outside linebacker who is on the Buckeyes’ radar. He joined JC for Saturday evening’s impromptu photoshoot before they all went to spend time with their uncle and cousins in Akron for the rest of the weekend. He was with family in Akron, but he also left one behind in Columbus.
“I loved it. It was really incredible,” Latham said of his Ohio State visit. “All the fans and everyone was getting along with each other and people were communicating with one another. Just the vibe was great.
“For me, they’re really just family. Everyone really connected with another, and everyone was really loving one another; trying to get to know each other. It’s like they accepted you right off the bat, no matter who you were. It was a loving and accepting environment, treating you like family.”
And that’s one of the most important factors in Latham’s college decision – how the program and its coaches treat Latham and his family, and “how they try to push me to the league. And how they try to help my life after I retire; after my career is over.
“Coach Stud was the one who talked to me about my future. He feels like they can send O-linemen to the NFL, and he was making sure they have a plan for that on and off the field. Many players retire at 30 so making sure they have a plan for when they retire and not just to forget about them when they retire. They have a plan for whatever it may be. They know what they’re doing.”
It’s been an ever-growing relationship between Latham and Studrawa, and this weekend’s visit only solidified that relationship, which is one reason he’s just as confident that Ohio State is “still top two” among his options, with LSU as the top competition.
On his visit for Penn State, Latham found himself comparing the two programs to see how each one treats him and his overall feel for each program.
“I haven’t been to LSU, but I feel comfortable with them too,” Latham said. “They talk to me every day, and they always wanna make me feel at home. I know that’s a school I could be at. I just can’t wait to go on a visit out there. I was supposed to go there not too long ago, but I ended up not being able to go.”
Latham will eventually make that LSU visit, and he also plans on returning to Columbus again in the spring. In the meantime, he says he’s nowhere near a commitment, but wherever he chooses, the decision could come sometime between March and May – the latter being the same time the Buckeyes could expect a commitment from another of these three big-time O-line prospects.
That’s because Tshabola seems to be completely sold on Ohio State.
He wants to keep his options open, as any reasonable, thorough recruit should in making such a monumental decision. But Ohio State is Tshabola’s No. 1 school of choice. It’s been that way for years, but it’s starting to become a reality for the West Chester, Ohio native.
“The main factor is just being a kid from Ohio, Ohio State is where every kid wants to go growing up in Ohio,” Tshabola told Eleven Warriors. “That’s the one very big part. I’ve been a Buckeyes fan since I was 7 or 6 years old.”
That’s all well and good, and it’s a common theme among most of the in-state recruits, whether the Buckeyes extend an offer or not. But it’s not just the in-state factor that’s boosting Tshabola’s attraction to the program. This weekend gave him a strong glimpse of what the future would be like and to have Day as his leader.
Even though Day spoke throughout the week at press conferences that recruits would not be getting much face time with the coaches due to the preparation for the huge game, that turned out to not be completely accurate. Tshabola says Day took time while walking down the tunnel to speak with him and other recruits despite the impending kickoff.
“We got a lot of face time (with Day),” Tshabola said. “He’s a really cool dude. I didn’t think he was gonna pay that much attention to us. That just shows he cares so much about his athletes. Just the fact that he paid that much attention to us shows us what it’s gonna be like in the future. If you need help with something, you can really look to a coach like that. The coach will have your back. He won’t just leave you hanging.
“That’s one of the things I look at when I’m thinking about committing to somewhere. I look at my relationships with the coaches and see if they’re gonna get me when I’m down. Because I know I’m willing to do anything to get my coaches’ back, and I need to know if they’ll do the same for me.”
Tshabola does believe the Buckeye coaches will have his back, starting with Day, Studrawa and offensive line assistant Kennedy Cook. He has an especially good relationship with the two OL coaches, in addition to great relationships with Buckeye 2020 commits Darrion Henry-Young and Paris Johnson Jr. – players he says that he “looks at as potential teammates, not as players from other schools.”
He’s known Johnson since third grade, when his brother was Johnson’s youth football teammate, and Tshabola has looked at Johnson as a player to emulate.
“To be a tough football player, like Paris Johnson and them, you can’t just be in the cameras all the time,” Tshabola said. “You can’t just be working hard on the cameras. You’ve gotta work off the cameras too. That’s what they’d be getting from me – a whole lot of desire to play football.”
Tshabola says he plans on “making the big announcement” in May, so it’s possible he becomes Ohio State’s first 2022 commitment before the 2020 summer hits.
As for Jackson, he also has Ohio connections, as his dad is from the Cleveland area, and he has family in Cincinnati. That was another reason for his visit, as he's spending time with family in the Cincinnati area for Thanksgiving, and the timing was perfect to go see a big-time game at the Shoe.
"The Shoe came alive (Saturday) forcing many penalties because of the noise," Jackson told 247Sports' Steve Wiltfong. "The highlight for me was seeing the offensive line creating hole for J.K. Dobbins. Overall I had an amazing time and experience. Out of all the schools I’ve been to, only a select few rival OSU."
Ben Christman is already in place as a 2021 Buckeye commit, but the nation’s 10th-ranked offensive tackle and second-ranked Ohioan junior is looking for some company to help him dominate along the frontlines.
It could be Latham, it could be Jackson (who’s versatile enough to potentially move to guard), it could be Tshabola, or it could be all three to join him. At least one of them is likely – perhaps two, or even all three – to wind up in one of those scarlet and grey jerseys. Not just for a photoshoot and not just for Instagram.
And those roars wouldn’t be for the cameras anymore. They would be celebratory screams of another huge Ohio State victory, just like the one that passed an hour and a half ago, as the program’s building blocks. And those wins would come rain, snow or shine.