Ohio State's Senior Bowl Participants Had to Work Their Way Up to Becoming Starters for the Buckeyes, Which Helped Prepare Them for the NFL

By Dan Hope on January 25, 2020 at 12:05 pm
DaVon Hamilton

MOBILE, Alabama – The five NFL draft prospects from Ohio State who are playing in Saturday’s Senior Bowl weren’t immediate college football superstars.

Unlike J.K. Dobbins, who started for the Buckeyes from the first game of his freshman year, or Chase Young and Jeff Okudah, five-star recruits who were projected to be future superstars from the time they stepped on campus, each of the five Buckeyes in Mobile, Alabama this week needed time to develop and overcome their share of ups and downs before they became impact players at Ohio State.

None of them are likely to be first-round picks in April’s NFL draft, either, which means they’ll face steeper competition than Young, Okudah and Dobbins to maintain their spots on NFL rosters and climb their way up depth charts. The fact that they’ve already had to prove themselves and work their way up to becoming starters at Ohio State, though, should now be valuable experience as they try to do that again as professionals.

“I come from a very high-level school where we had brought in a lot of good guys, and the next level’s the same way,” Austin Mack said this week at Senior Bowl media day. “You got new guys every single year trying to take your job, or as I would be, and eventually, I get to a team, it’ll be the same way.”

While it took time for all of the five Buckeyes at the Senior Bowl to emerge as future NFL prospects, they had a perfect example to follow from Ohio State’s lone Senior Bowl participant last year, Terry McLaurin. A modestly recruited four-star prospect out of high school, McLaurin gradually developed over his first four years at Ohio State before he finally emerged as one of the Buckeyes’ top players as a fifth-year senior. Then, after a fantastic week at last year’s Senior Bowl, he went on to be a third-round pick in the 2019 NFL draft and immediately became the Washington Redskins’ leading receiver as a rookie.

DaVon Hamilton, at least so far, is a Buckeye whose career has followed a similar path. The lowest-ranked prospect (excluding long snapper Liam McCullough) in Ohio State’s recruiting class of 2015, Hamilton redshirted as a freshman then saw gradually increased playing time over the next three seasons. As a fifth-year senior in 2019, Hamilton emerged as the Buckeyes’ starting nose tackle and one of their best defensive players – recording 28 total tackles with 10.5 tackles for loss and six sacks, and earning third-team All-Big Ten honors – and he too has had a huge week at this week’s Senior Bowl, earning practice player of the week honors among the North team’s defensive linemen.

Even a year ago, few would have guessed that Hamilton would now be positioned as a middle-round draft choice, but he believes the long road to get to this point has prepared him well for the future.

“I feel like I had to do a lot of things to get to where I am right now, and I’m glad I went through that,” Hamilton said. “I’m glad I got to this point, and I’m trying to keep on proceeding, keep on moving.”

K.J. Hill’s breakout happened faster than Hamilton – he was one of the Buckeyes’ top two receivers for each of the last three seasons, which enabled him to become Ohio State’s all-time receptions leader with 201 career catches – but he, too, had to wait his turn at the beginning of his career. And while he presumably would have been selected had he chosen to enter the 2019 NFL draft, he ended up staying at Ohio State for five years as well. 

Hill started at the bottom of a depth chart that included current NFL starters Michael Thomas and Curtis Samuel and finished as the leader of the Buckeyes’ receiver room, and he said that experience will “definitely” benefit him as he makes the jump to the next level.

“When I first walked in the room, there was Mike Thomas, Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson, Curtis Samuel – I could keep going. And guys like Parris (Campbell) and Terry (McLaurin) and Johnnie (Dixon), they wasn’t even playing. So it was a loaded room full of competition, and that’s how you want it,” said Hill, who earned practice player of the week honors among North wide receivers this week. “That’s going to bring the best out of you. But now that I’m here with some high-caliber guys, I just feel like that’s the same thing I’ve been doing my whole five years.”

Harrison, like Hill, also could have made the jump to the NFL draft in 2019 if he wanted to. But his junior year was his first year as a starter for the Buckeyes, and he felt like he didn’t start playing up to his ability until the final three games of the 2018 season, so he decided staying at Ohio State for his senior season was the best move for him.

A quarterback at Walnut Ridge High School, Harrison arrived at Ohio State as a raw three-star prospect, but his four years of development with the Buckeyes – culminating with a first-team All-Big Ten senior season under the tutelage of new linebackers coach Al Washington – have positioned him to be one of the top linebackers in the 2020 draft class.

“The position that I am now, I probably wouldn’t have been junior year. So just having that extra year helped me out a lot,” Harrison said. “Coach Washington, he really emphasized on using my hands and getting off the block and being more violent. I feel like I showed that all last year, and he brought it out of me a lot.”

Malik Harrison and DaVon Hamilton
Malik Harrison and DaVon Hamilton both improved as players and elevated their NFL draft stocks in their senior years at Ohio State.

Mack, the only one of Ohio State’s Senior Bowl participants this year who was a top-100 recruit out of high school, is the one Buckeye in Mobile who might have the most reason to feel like he could have gotten more out of his collegiate career. While he was a hyped prospect as soon as he arrived on campus, with some suggesting he could be the Buckeyes’ next Michael Thomas, Mack never was better than the Buckeyes’ fifth-most productive receiver in any of his Ohio State seasons; his 27 catches for 361 yards and three touchdowns as a senior were career-highs.

His Ohio State career was somewhat plagued by injuries, as he missed multiple games in each of his final two seasons, but his production was also limited because he was in a receiving corps full of other NFL prospects. And he viewed this week’s Senior Bowl as an opportunity to show he is capable of being more productive even as he makes the jump to the next level, as Thomas has been.

“I come from a thick room where production was very, very slim,” Mack said. “And I think coming here, I’m going to be able to prove that I’m a capable receiver to play at a high level and to know that I can beat anybody that’s here. So I’m excited and ready to prove it.”

“I come from a very high-level school where we had brought in a lot of good guys, and the next level’s the same way.”– Austin Mack on how Ohio State compares to the NFL

Among all the Buckeyes at the Senior Bowl, no one took a more winding road to this point than Jonah Jackson, who spent four years at Rutgers – where he started at center in 2017 and right guard in 2018 – before becoming a graduate transfer at Ohio State, where he started at left guard, for his final collegiate season. After winning just nine games in four years at Rutgers, Jackson acknowledged that emerging as a top NFL prospect didn’t seem too realistic one year ago.

“If you told me this a year ago that this would all be happening, I’d probably laugh at you, but now being able to live in it and experience all this, it’s like no other,” Jackson said. “Being under the tutelage of (Ohio State offensive line coach Greg) Studrawa and (Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin) Wilson just helped me take my game to another level in both the run game and the pass game and definitely helped me get into the position I am today.”

Between Rutgers and Ohio State, Jackson was coached by five different offensive coordinators in five years, which isn’t necessarily ideal for a collegiate player’s development. But that has prepared him for the challenge he will face this summer, when he’ll be expected to learn another new offensive scheme for whichever NFL team drafts him.

“I’ll have to learn a whole new playbook, and then graduate transferring to a whole another school where I really didn’t know anybody, it just showed my ability to be able to blend in and make my presence felt as a player, and I feel like that definitely is going to help me translate that to the next level,” Jackson said.

Jackson, Hamilton, Hill, Harrison and Mack will take the next step in their journeys on Saturday at 2:30 p.m., when they’ll don their Ohio State helmets for one final time to play in the Senior Bowl, after which they’ll turn their full focus to preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine.

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