MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. – The ball, which had been launched deep down the middle of the field, bounced up in the air after hitting a mishmosh of outstretched hands and arms before rebounding into the arms of the intended target who fell backward onto the ground and somehow held on. Touchdown.
Those scattered in the stands watching the 7-on-7 game at Mira Costa High School made the same sound at once – “OOOHHHHHH” – as they witnessed arguably the best play of Saturday’s action. Others who’d finished playing on the field behind the school and were walking back to the main field started screaming with glee. One of them – four-star cornerback Bobby Taylor, a Texan committed to Texas A&M – ran into the back of the end zone and started pointing at the defensive player who’d gotten beat.
“That’s the number one safety in America,” he shouted, repeating it several times before talking away.
The guy he was aiming those words at was Xavier Nwankpa, a four-star safety and Ohio State target.
Taylor was correct. Nwankpa, though he’s the No. 5 safety per the composite ratings, is the No. 1 safety in 247Sports’ own 2022 rankings. Even at an event like this – The Opening 7v7 Invitational, which welcomed 100 of the best high school football players in the country – Nwankpa stands out. His peers know him and they know his reputation. And many of them want to see who can hang with somebody like him.
“It’s whatever. It's fun,” Nwankpa told Eleven Warriors over the weekend. “At least we're going out here and balling. I don't really trip or anything. We're just having fun.”
Nwankpa isn’t new to any of this. He’s not new to the spotlight that shines on recruits of his stature.
He’s from Altoona, Iowa, a town just outside of Des Moines that’s not exactly known for consistently producing star football players. But he has made his mark anyway, turning into a player that has national powerhouses chasing him.
Last month, Nwankpa took three long-awaited official visits – first to Ohio State, then to Texas A&M, and finally to Notre Dame – along with a two-day unofficial visit to Iowa.
“My first one at Ohio State, the atmosphere stood out,” Nwankpa said. “All the people were super welcoming like some place I could potentially see myself at. So, that stood out. At Texas A&M, their culture is different. Just the way they run their practices and everything. Stuff like that. And then Notre Dame, what they can do for me post-football and everything like that.”
Unlike plenty of his fellow rising seniors, Nwankpa didn’t see all he wanted to in June. There’s no impending commitment. He’s going to take his time.
Next up? Two more official visits, then game-day unofficial visits for the schools he visited this summer – including Ohio State – “just get the atmosphere” of where he’ll end up.
“I haven't been to a Texas A&M game and Ohio State game,” Nwankpa said. “I've been to an Iowa game and a Notre Dame game. But just seeing the environment again because there's new people, new coaching staffs, new players and everything like that.”
However long Nwankpa wants to wait, Ohio State will wait as well. He, along with fellow four-star safety Zion Branch, is a priority. Kerry Coombs and Matt Barnes, in all likelihood, won’t move on to other prospects in the defensive backfield unless they know those two aren’t options.
What helps the Buckeyes in that regard is their otherwise full class of defensive backs. They hold commitments from cornerbacks Jaheim Singletary, Terrance Brooks, Jyaire Brown and Ryan Turner and athlete/safety Kye Stokes. There is no need whatsoever to rush Nwankpa, especially since they’ve long been telling him that they’re not recruiting him to play the same position as any of the other five pledges.
They want him at the bullet, the hybrid linebacker-safety position they plan to reintroduce to the defensive this fall.
“They just feel like I can fill in the bullet position,” Nwankpa said. “Watching my film, it's what I do. They say I fit for that position, so I can come in, compete early because they don't have a bunch of bullets in there since they haven't implemented it yet. So I'd have a chance to come in and compete for that spot.”
Ohio State zeroing in on Nwankpa playing the bullet also helps assuage any concerns that might exist about joining a 2022 class that already contains so many other secondary commitments. He mentioned that the majority of pledges are cornerbacks and said “some corners will switch to safety, but not a bunch will switch to bullet, so I feel like I can have that position.”
As he puts it, “you’ve got to just go in and ball” because “they’re really just restocking.”
Notre Dame and Texas A&M want him as more of a prototypical safety. So, what does he think about potentially playing the bullet for the Buckeyes?
“It's super versatile,” Nwankpa said. “So you'll be in the box, like in the post, stuff like that, so you'll get a chance to do everything. So scouts from the next level, they'll see you do literally everything on the field.”
There’s no rising senior who the Buckeyes want to do “literally everything on the field” for them more than the “number one safety in America.” That’s part of the reason he was inseparable from commits C.J. Hicks and Kyion Grayes over the weekend at The Opening. They’re recruiting him as hard as the coaching staff and have built a bond with him that could prove significant.
For now, they – like everyone else – will have to wait. Ohio State will get another chance to impress Nwankpa in person at a game in a few months before he ultimately makes his commitment, which he says will happen before his high school postseason or at the All-American Bowl on Jan. 8.