One Key 2021 Recruiting Battle Still Looms As the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide Prepare for Championship Showdown

By Andrew Ellis on January 3, 2021 at 3:30 pm
Ryan Day and Nick Saban are fighting for five-star defender JT Tuimoloau.
The Tuscaloosa News-USA TODAY Sports

Here we go again.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, two teams that do an exceptional job on the recruiting trail have made it to the national championship game. Since the beginning of the playoff era, there have really only been a few exceptions to the rule with some lower-tier teams like Washington and Michigan State occasionally making it into the semifinals.

The Ohio State-Alabama matchup will pit countless blue-chip players against one another much like what the Buckeyes just experienced against the Tigers. Many of these players had both of the powerhouse programs at the forefront of their recruitments prior to their signing with Nick Saban or Urban Meyer/Ryan Day. 

Ohio State and Alabama were battling it out for the top spot in the 2021 recruiting class before the Tide pulled ahead and – barring something unexpected – will once again finish at No. 1. Five-star offensive tackle JC Latham was Saban's biggest win over the Buckeyes while Ohio State went head-to-head with both Bama and Clemson to sign four-star Georgia cornerback Jordan Hancock.

The Buckeyes will face their stiffest challenge of the season on Jan. 11, and the program's biggest remaining 2021 recruiting battle also involves a battle with the Crimson Tide as the two teams look to land the nation's top uncommitted prospect. 

Ohio State has 21 signees/commitments and is looking to add one or two more before February's signing day. Alabama has a whopping 26 and per usual still somehow has room to add a few more. Regardless of the weird numbers game, Washington defensive lineman J.T. Tuimoloau is the top remaining target for both programs.

Tuimoloau is the No. 1 prospect per the 247 Sports rankings (No. 3 in the composite) and we've had him at the top of our 2021 recruiting board for nearly a year now. The Pacific Northwesterner announced his final five a few weeks back, and the list consists of Ohio State, Alabama, Washington, USC, and Oregon. Most, however, believe this one is going to come down to the Buckeyes and Tide. 

For Ohio State, this recruitment has been all about Larry Johnson and his development along the defensive line. Tuimoloau has repeatedly cited this as perhaps the biggest factor in what he's looking for at the next level. He's a versatile defender (not to mention a hell of a tight end) who's listed as a strongside defensive end. But at 277 pounds, there's certainly a chance he could line up on the interior. 

The 247 Sports player comparison is a good one in former Buckeye defender Cameron Heyward. The NFL All-Pro lined up at defensive end in Ohio State's 4-3 scheme and has lined up all over in the Pittsburgh Steelers' 3-4. While in Columbus, Heyward played right around 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds prior to being selected in the first round of 2011 NFL Draft.

Alabama has been no slouch with its own defensive line development. The Tide has 10 defensive linemen currently in the NFL with players like the Jets' Quinnen Williams and the Washington Football Team's Jonathan Allen. However, the number of prolific edge defenders pales in comparison to what Larry Johnson has produced of late. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been problematic for programs all across the country, and it hasn't done any favors for Ohio State's pursuit of J.T. Tuimoloau. As a two-sport star, his schedule is already limited enough, and the prized defender has yet to make a trip to Columbus in part due to the seemingly never-ending dead period. He has been to Tuscaloosa, though, which is reason enough for at least a small bit of concern. 

The outcome of one game is never going to decide a recruitment. Comfort and relationships will always be the key, and Tuimoloau has a strong relationship with both Larry Johnson and Ryan Day; even though most of that has come via phone calls and Zoom meetings. He's also close with freshman wide receiver (and former teammate) Gee Scott Jr. and five-star 2021 Buckeye signee Emeka Egbuka. Ohio State's ties to the state of Washington are perhaps stronger than ever before.

The Buckeyes' chances likely got a bit of a boost yesterday with some news across the coaching landscape. Steve Sarkisian has been the primary recruiter for Tuimoloau with defensive coordinator Pete Golding also playing a role. Sarkisian's move to Austin takes away an important relationship that the Tide had with the five-star. Sarkisian is a West Coast guy who spent five seasons coaching the Huskies from 2009 through 2013. 

Ohio State will square off against Alabama next Monday in Miami. For Tuimoloau, there's no real end in sight as he's hoping to take some visits before announcing his decision. The plan had been for a February signing day decision, but that may very well get pushed back depending on when and if he can make a few trips. Out of all his favorites, Ohio State is the lone program he's yet to visit. 

The Buckeye defensive line was phenomenal against Clemson, and a repeat performance will be needed next week. Ohio State will look to top the Tide for a national championship and then once again for one of the nation's top 2021 prospects. 

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