Ohio State is a month removed from its season ending with a last-second defeat in the Peach Bowl at the hands of Georgia.
But there’s been no offseason for assistant athletic director of player personnel Mark Pantoni and his recruiting staff. Over the last few months, Pantoni has worked hard to complete the Buckeyes’ 2023 recruiting class and evaluate prospects for OSU to target in the transfer portal.
When the dust cleared on National Signing Day on Wednesday, OSU had signed 20 high school prospects in the 2023 cycle, all of whom signed during the Early Signing Period, and five transfer portal players, giving them 25 new additions in total for next season.
With the 2023 class finalized barring any further additions via the transfer portal when it opens again in May, Pantoni – who says he watches an average of eight to nine hours of film per day during the season – said he and his staff have already pivoted to evaluating recruits in the 2024, 2025 and 2026 classes. But Ohio State’s recruiting approach for future cycles may be altered from how the Buckeyes have operated in the past now that NIL is a major driving force in college football.
In the 2023 class, Ohio State had several misses on high-end targets, with NIL playing a part in at least some of those prospects’ decisions to head elsewhere. As such, while OSU is still operating under the goal of landing the best players possible, Pantoni said it will likely put a greater emphasis on recruiting Ohio prospects and within the Midwest in general. That mindset has been reflected on the recruiting trail over the past few weeks, with various Ohio prospects receiving offers including Devontae and Deontae Armstrong, Sam Williams-Dixon, Marquise Davis, Dorian Brew, Marc Nave Jr. and Carter Lowe.
“I think just this year is the learning curve of feeling it the hard way,” Pantoni said about NIL hurting OSU’s recruiting. “But you know, now that we've been through a full cycle, I think we'll go into this class with a better mindset of spending our time and resources in certain areas versus others.”
Even with a potential greater focus on Ohio prospects, the Buckeyes will still attempt to recruit the top prospects throughout the nation. But Pantoni said OSU may pull out of the race for a prized recruit earlier than it would have in pre-NIL days if it becomes clear NIL is the driving factor in that recruitment.
“Definitely a new mindset of how we're gonna have to approach things during this time,” Pantoni said while meeting with reporters on Wednesday. “So obviously, (we’ll recruit) way more heavy in Ohio, in the Midwest. And then regionally, we're going to do our best as we've always have, but we may have to pull out of recruiting some guys nationally quicker than we have if we know right away, the NIL is going to be a main factor in their recruitments. It's just probably not something we're going to want to end up being able to compete with by choice as well. You know, is that something we want to bring into the locker room as well? So, those are the conversations we have, you know, in this day.
“Obviously, we're going to do our due diligence on everybody, as usual. And then we just really have to do a better job of vetting and seeing what's really important. We want kids, first of all, to want to come to Ohio State because of Ohio State and the great tradition and history of all the guys who've been here before them. And that number one thing of why we win is that culture in that locker room and so we can't do anything that's going to take away from that.”
Pantoni said he and OSU’s staff converse daily about particular prospects and what the biggest factors in their recruitments are, including knowing the player’s inner circle and background to try and accurately assess if he’s a fit in Columbus.
“It's conversations we have all the time,” Pantoni said of he and his staff trying to gauge a recruit’s motivation. “Just going through names and where we're at on guys, and what's going to make this kid make his decision? Is it going to be NIL? Is it going to be development and brotherhood and culture and winning? And all the great things this place has to offer? Or is it gonna be strictly because of money? And so those are conversations we have. The worst thing we can do is waste a lot of time and effort on kids knowing that and then you lose them at the end of the day … In today's world, we really understand some of these national kids, we may make their top five or top three, but at the end of the day, that could change very quickly.”
In regards to NIL in general, Pantoni said NIL isn’t being used nationally as it was intended to be. He hopes guardrails are established to help mitigate the gray areas that currently exist.
“I just hope there's a lot of really smart people in this profession, that we can all come together and get a solution to this as quickly as possible,” Pantoni said. “Because I don't think there's a lot of people who enjoy what's going on. And I think, you know, NIL isn’t what it was intended to be. And so I'm raising my hand to help any way I can to get a solution to get this fixed.”
Where Pantoni believes NIL will continue to be an asset for the Buckeyes is retaining players. Only five scholarship players from last season have transferred elsewhere from Ohio State, and Pantoni says helping its current players land NIL opportunities will continue to be a point of emphasis for OSU.
“Our current team and our current retention is what NIL is for, you know, the guys that really earned their namesake through their play on the field,” Pantoni said. “And now with their name, image and likeness, they're able to capitalize on that. And I think that a place like Ohio State, in the 15th-largest city, with the power of this brand and the fan base, our guys are cashing in right now because of that. So that's what it was meant to be. And we're glad that they're having that opportunity.”