Finding the right fit for your college football program isn't just about what happens on the field, but off it as well. Today, Ohio State added a key piece. How will that commitment impact the Buckeyes?
Cincinnati La Salle safety Jaylen Johnson finished the year of 2019 with a major life highlight by leading his team to a 34-17 Division II state championship victory over Massillon Washington in early December.
On Tuesday, Johnson began 2020 with another one, committing to Ohio State and becoming the Buckeyes' eighth commitment in the 2021 class.
We take a look at what the Buckeyes' latest commitment brings to Ohio State on and off the field.
On the field
Johnson is a three-star safety ranked as the No. 18 player at the position in 2021 and is the No. 421-ranked player nationally. Despite the low overall rankings, there's a reason the 6-foot-1, 205-pound junior became the 11th-best in-state recruit in this class.
He's a versatile, physical player who brings something the Buckeyes' former secondary coach, Jeff Hafley, would have loved – ability to tackle in space and ability to cover.
He did both things well in the Lancers' state championship game, keeping fellow 2021 Ohio State commit Jayden Ballard and Ballard's teammate Andrew Wilson-Lamp, one of the best one-two receiver punches in the state, in check en route to the title, and he's not afraid to lay down a hit.
Best feeling in the whole wide world we will be back next year https://t.co/rFt6pmXtL8— Jaylen.Johnson (@JaylenJohnson21) December 6, 2019
Johnson does not project, at this point, to play the deep safety position in Ohio State's single-high safety defense. Instead, he's a hybrid linebacker/safety prospect who could slide into becoming the Buckeyes' next player at the bullet position, with Kourt Williams II preceding him in the 2020 class.
When Eleven Warriors spoke to Johnson in late October, he said the Buckeyes were recruiting him to play safety, and he had not paid much attention to their usage of the bullet. He did say, however, that Ohio State's coaches had at least discussed playing the bullet with him, saying a move to the position could be in the cards if his body continues to grow.
Johnson has the athleticism of a running back or a receiver. He won't be playing either of those positions as a Buckeye, but he has enough speed and athleticism to cover skill-position players. One of his key roles could be covering slot receivers, tight ends or running backs on passing downs.
If nothing else, he's certainly already got the confidence and swagger of a defensive back.
"Honestly, I bring anything and everything to the table," Johnson said. "I rarely have weaknesses, and if I do, I get them together as soon as possible."
Off the field
As a surprise to no one who has followed Ohio State's recruiting and is familiar with the program's coaches, relationships served as the main factor in landing Johnson's commitment.
Johnson said in October that he was speaking with Al Washington, Jeff Hafley and Ryan Day "almost on a daily basis. We talk three or four days a week. It's never a dull moment talking to Ohio State."
For Johnson, building a genuine relationship with each coach meant a lot to him, and that's why he had originally planned to wait until May (and then pushed back to the summer) to commit. He wanted continue building a relationship and said that would "tell me if they're being real or not."
Turns out, his relationships with Washington and Day were as genuine as he could have hoped for, and the Buckeyes' continued non-pitch sales pitch landed another commitment.
"We just always crack jokes and stuff like that. We don’t ever talk about the negative stuff," Johnson said. "They’re just a normal person. They don’t act like a coach or anything in that way. We just talk. Once me and coaches get cool, our bonds just get stronger, and it’s like a normal thing. We don’t try to think of it as, ‘Yeah, I’m still a player, and you’re a coach.’ We just create a bond together.
"They just like me all around. They think I’m a good kid. They like me as an athlete. They don’t want me to rush anything. They feel like Ohio State is home, and I should do whatever my heart tells me to do."
In the class
One of the reasons Johnson may have turned in his commitment so much earlier than expected could be because fellow three-star recruit Bryce Steele is another player on the Buckeyes' radar as a linebacker/safety hybrid. Steele originally announced a Jan. 1 commitment date. Though he pushed that back to an unknown date, he could be making his college decision sometime soon, and though it's been expected North Carolina is the leader in his recruitment, perhaps Johnson wanted to jump at the opening sooner than later.
With Johnson's commitment, the Buckeyes have now addressed another position of need for the recruiting cycle and increased their lead for the No. 1 ranking in the 2021 class.
Running back, defensive back and defensive line (in that order) are the three highest priorities in 2021 for Ohio State, and it will certainly be shooting for at least three more defensive backs.
The Buckeyes lost out on one of its top priorities, four-star safety Hunter Wohler, when the Muskego (Wisconsin) star committed to Jim Leonhard and the Badgers, giving the Buckeyes' Big Ten counterpart the state's second-ranked overall junior recruit.
Derrick Davis Jr. is another safety on the Buckeyes' radar. At cornerback, Tony Grimes and Jakailin Johnson are two of the highest priorities, along with Hunter Washington, Jordan Hancock and Avante Dickerson.