Urban Meyer knows better than anyone the importance to recruit the fruitful ground of the state of Ohio into his college football program. Due to this perception, Eleven Warriors will look at the 12 Ohio high school programs who produced Buckeyes in 2015.
MACEDONIA, Ohio — Jeff Fox, the head football coach at Nordonia High School set to enter his fourth season, has a picture of two members of his 2014 team he holds in high regard. One of those players featured in the photo is Denzel Ward, a 2015 Ohio State signee and one of the top-rated defensive backs in the country. The other is Mark Filakosky, a team captain, but someone Fox describes as “a kid that’s not gonna play college football, a 5-foot-7 defensive tackle.”
The photo isn’t from this past season, one which Nordonia finished 14-1 and the Division II state runner-up. No, this photo is from back in the day, from when Ward and Filakosky were 7 or 8 years old, playing youth football together.
It means a lot to Fox because it’s symbolic of his program. Most of the players at Nordonia have been playing together for years, since they were first learning the ins and outs of the game of football as young children. Because of that, when they get to the high school level, the players know everything about one another. They are lifelong friends playing football together, enjoying times they will remember forever.
Whenever Fox glances at that photo he is reminded of one thing: The Nordonia football program is about family.
“Every single day we talk about it, we call our team a family,” Fox told Eleven Warriors. “That’s something we’ve built on, we emphasize it, we try to make sure in the culture here that kids respect each other and that every kid on the team is respected.”
“Really it’s just a big family and we all pick each other up whenever we’re down,” Ward added. “Just like play the next play in football, we all just pick each other up.”
Once a consistent fixture in the Ohio state playoffs in the early-to-mid 2000s, the Nordonia program had, all of a sudden, fallen on hard times. After qualifying for the postseason six times in seven years from 2002-2008, the Knights rolled off three consecutive 2-8 seasons in 2009, 2010 and 2011. After the 2011 season, Al Huge resigned and Nordonia took a risk in hiring Fox, who had never been a head coach prior to landing the gig with the Knights.
“Really it’s just a big family and we all pick each other up whenever we’re down. Just like play the next play in football, we all just pick each other up.”– Denzel Ward
The move has paid huge dividends so far, though. Nordonia has gone 29-8 during Fox’s first three years and made the playoffs in each season. Last year, the Knights won their first 14 games of the season before falling to Cincinnati La Salle in the state championship game.
Fox’s goal was simple: to get the Nordonia program back to where it was. In order to do that, he didn’t have to change the culture, just reshape it.
“All the ingredients were here: we have great kids, the previous coaching staff — even though they hadn’t been as successful the last couple years — really had laid the foundation,” Fox said. “We had kids that were willing to work, do what you ask and the culture wasn’t necessarily broken here at Nordonia. This is a football town and when our coaching staff arrived it was just kind of a breath of fresh air.”
As a public school program playing in one of Ohio’s larger divisions, Fox doesn’t have control of who enters his program. The kids in the Nordonia school district who want to play football will suit up for the Knights. Occasionally, at larger public schools you’ll get big-time Division I talents like Nordonia had this past season with Ward and Michigan State signee Justice Alexander. Other years, you won’t. That’s just the nature of coaching at a public school program. This year’s 22-man senior class, for example, had six players sign to play college football at some level on National Signing day.
Fox’s mission is to blend all of the different talent levels together to create a team that plays at the highest level. Leadership is important for that, but so is the way in which the team goes about its everyday business.
“That senior class, they were just an unbelievably gifted class, but what we were most proud about was that you turn on the film and they played extremely hard,” Fox said. “No matter the situation, no matter the opponent, they played with great effort. They relentlessly pursued excellence and did the best they could each and every day and they bought into an attitude and preparation.”
All programs need some kind of talent in order to be successful. But when your best players buy into what the coaching staff is preaching, that’s when special seasons take place.
“He’s a great kid,” Fox said of Ward. “I remember when (Ohio State cornerbacks coach) Coombs first came and they really started to dig deep and investigate whether or not they were going to recruit him. Those were the questions they asked and he passed every test in that.”
Fox admits Ohio State coaches probably would have laughed if he tried to get them to recruit Ward as a sophomore. “He was about a 135-pound kid who barely played varsity football,” the coach said.
But, like most high school football players, Ward’s body began to mature physically as he got a little bit older. He played a solid junior season for the Knights and, as a result, received a handful of scholarship offers following that 2013 campaign. His first offer came Feb. 17, 2014 from Cincinnati. Ohio, Kentucky and Bowling Green offers quickly followed and Ward seemingly had blossomed into a highly-coveted prospect as he got ready for his senior year of high school.
Ward’s first Big Ten offer came from Rutgers on May 13, 2014. Indiana offered him shortly after that and he also had Power 5 offers from Syracuse and Washington State. But it wasn’t until Ward attended one of Ohio State’s one-day position camps last summer that he earned an offer from the Buckeyes. Ward committed on the spot.
“I committed immediately because I knew growing up that’s where I always wanted to go,” Ward said.
To play for Ohio State, you have to be a talented player. But Urban Meyer and staff have also made it known they want to find out everything there is to know about a player before they fully commit to offering a scholarship.
MORE ON DENZEL WARD
Read up on how Ward caught Ohio State's eye,
his recruiting process, commitment and more
in his Better Know a Buckeye feature.
Ward’s recruitment was no different. When Coombs came up to Nordonia to visit the cornerback, he talked with Ward’s coaches and teachers. Coombs even talked to one of the lunch ladies in the cafeteria to try and get the inside scoop on Ward's character.
“She said he’s one of the most polite kids in line every day,” Fox said with a laugh.
Ward’s upbringing deserves credit for that, but a lot of it can be traced back to the culture at the Nordonia program, too.
“It definitely prepared me for the next level,” Ward said. “My coach’s enthusiasm really gets me going and it’s really just a great program to go through to take me on to the next level.”
That’s Fox’s ultimate goal as the head coach and leader of a program. He wants his players to succeed after high school whether it’s on the football field or not. “Hopefully that’s what they’ll get out of it when they graduate from our program and that’s why you work so hard at what you do,” he said.
At Nordonia, it’s about a family-oriented atmosphere and working hard. Ward fits that mold and that’s exactly why he’s one of Ohio State’s homegrown talents in its 2015 class.
“I think he’s going to continue to improve, forged by the competition that’s going to be greatly upgraded when he gets to Columbus combined with what he’s always done which is be willing to compete and work his butt off to improve,” Fox said. “I’m really excited to see how he blossoms and to see him compete and work his way into contributing into that program.”