SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Paul Sutherland will never forget his first trip to Columbus, Ohio.
It was the summer of 2012 and Sutherland, the head football coach at Pendleton High School in Pendleton, South Carolina, was in town with his star player: a 6-foot-2 300-plus pound defensive tackle named Michael Hill. Sutherland, Hill and Hill’s father all made the nine-hour drive north so the four-star prospect could visit Ohio State.
Sutherland remembers Eddie George waiting for them inside Urban Meyer’s office when they arrived on campus. He recalls the professors calling out Hill’s high school stats as he toured the academic buildings. These things stood out, of course, but they’re not exactly the reason why Sutherland will always remember that first trip to Ohio State.
No, it was a certain climate change that captured everybody’s attention.
“What stood out most to us was it was the first week in June and I had to go out and buy a jacket that night,” Sutherland jokes now. “Michael did, too, and so did his dad and we almost didn’t find Michael a 5x. All three of us went out and bought jackets.”
“Never in my life had I bought a jacket in June before.”
Luckily for the Buckeyes, the temperature that day didn’t matter much to Hill. It was clear to him Ohio State was a special place, the place he wanted to play his college football.
Hill pledged to Meyer and former assistant coaches Mike Vrabel and Everett Withers — Sutherland gives Withers a ton of credit for building a relationship with Hill throughout the recruiting process — shortly after that visit on June 27, 2012. When it happened, it was a big-time haul for Ohio State. For whatever reason, defensive tackles like Hill aren’t exactly at a surplus in the Midwest.
Now, four years later, Hill will start on the interior of the Buckeyes’ defensive line Saturday when they take on Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. But the Tigers being Ohio State’s opponent is especially unique for Hill when you consider his high school is a five-minute drive from Clemson’s campus.
Hill estimated he went to his first Clemson game in the fourth grade and the Tigers were the first school to offer him in high school. But as strange as it sounds, he actually grew up rooting for Ohio State. That love for the Buckeyes began in 2006 when Ohio State knocked off Michigan.
“Chris Wells during his freshman year, he broke a big run down the middle during the Team up North game. Ever since then, I’ve been a fan,” Hill said. “I had been going to Clemson games forever, but I just felt like I wanted to go away from home and Ohio State was my favorite school growing up so I just did what I felt was right.”
Hill is a man of few words, so getting him to explain his story isn’t the easiest thing in the world. “I’m not a fan of the media, to be honest,” he says. And if you ask any of Ohio State’s other defensive linemen to explain their nose guard and the first word that comes out of their mouths is quiet.
But that’s usually followed by another adjective: funny. Hill was almost unanimously voted as Ohio State’s most amusing player.
“He’s real quiet, but once you get to know him he’s one of the funniest guys on the team,” defensive end Sam Hubbard said. “He’s got a great personality, a great sense of humor and he’s always got something to lighten the mood. That’s just how he is.”
Added fellow defensive end Tyquan Lewis: “If you look at him it’s like a blank face and then he just tells a joke and it’s so funny. It’s just automatically funny. Like nobody cares but we just think it’s funny.”
Hill himself admits it takes awhile for him to open up to people, but he’s more than comfortable now in his fourth year with the Buckeyes.
“I like to stay to myself, but once you get to know me I open up to you,” Hill said. “During practices when everything is getting rough I like to say a little joke or something to just lighten the mood a little bit.”
“I don’t think Mike spoke for like a month when I first met him,” Lewis added.
Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson needs somebody like that in his meeting room.
“Mike has really grown a lot and he’s been kind of a quiet leader. He doesn’t say very much but he just comes to work every day and works extremely hard,” Johnson said. “He’s quiet, but he’s a really funny guy. When you get him going, man, you can’t stop him. You can’t shut him up. He’ll laugh, he’ll dance and he’s just a really fun guy to be around.”
“Football time he’s serious, but outside of that, he’s a jokester, man.”
Glancing down the Ohio State stat sheet, it takes a bit of scrolling before you come across Hill’s name. He has just 19 tackles this season and three tackles for loss. But in the Buckeyes’ defense, Hill does his job more than adequately as he takes up double teams to free up Ohio State’s other defenders to make plays.
“I don’t think Mike gets enough credit,” Lewis said. “His production isn’t as high as everybody else’s but I mean Raekwon [McMillan] wouldn’t have 16 tackles without Mike. Mike does a great job taking on double teams, squeezing the center off. Mike is the best player that doesn’t get any recognition.”
Hill will see plenty of familiar faces when he lines up Saturday night against the Tigers with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney being one of them. Swinney was the first person to offer Hill a scholarship, but his heart was always with Ohio State.
The Pendleton community is likely torn for this particular Fiesta Bowl matchup. It’s a small school in South Carolina so Hill is brought up frequently as the standard for Sutherland’s program. On the other hand, it’s just a five-minute drive to Clemson’s campus from the high school and Sutherland says people in the state are “split right down the middle” in terms of rooting for the Clemson or South Carolina.
There is one person, however, who is not torn. The one who bought his first June jacket back in the summer of 2013.
“The head coach is 100 percent ‘Go Buckeyes,’” Sutherland said. “And that’s because of Michael.”