Ohio State still has (at least) one more game remaining, but life-changing decisions are approaching fast for several Buckeyes at the conclusion of the 2022 campaign.
Eleven Warriors spoke to fifth-year seniors Xavier Johnson, Palaie Gaoteote and Josh Proctor – who all have another year of eligibility to consider – about the choices on the horizon for their football futures at Ohio State’s media day in Atlanta Thursday. And while all three are focused on Saturday’s College Football Playoff matchup with Georgia, they each provided insights into the factors they must weigh in the decisions to come after the season.
Johnson appeared poised to exit the program after his fifth season upon walking at Ohio State’s senior day ceremony and participating in the program’s subsequent Senior Tackle event, but Ryan Day said last week that he could provide Ohio State some positional flexibility in 2023. The former walk-on caught 10 passes for 108 yards and touchdown this season and also ran the ball six times for 118 yards and a score, and said his decision to still “up in the air” as of now.
“It's definitely a consideration. It's something that, it's kind of a big decision,” Johnson said. “So I've been praying on it and I've been talking to my family about it, trying to just get their counsel, their input. So I couldn't say I'm 100% one way or another, currently. But that is something that me and Coach Day, especially Coach (Brian Hartline), talked about at length. So we're just trying to figure out, navigate those waters and see exactly where it leads.”
Johnson said “there was a lot of thought being had” on the possibility for him to come back for a sixth season before Ohio State came to Atlanta, but that he’s put the decision on the back burner as Peach Bowl preparations come to a head. As for Day and Hartline’s pitch, Johnson said it centers on rounding out his skill set at the college level before making the jump to the next level.
“I think that their pitch is basically there's some more development to be had. And I would agree,” Johnson said. “I think it's always a good thing when I feel like I'm still getting better year by year. And so there's not like a plateau or I haven't felt like I've reached my ceiling. Sometimes that can be because of a place or sometimes it can be just because of your ability. And I feel like each year I've gotten better cognitively, I've gotten better with actual physical skills. And so their pitch is just that there's still more meat on the bone, if you will. And they think that they can really help me achieve and I would say get the most out of this college career.”
Johnson said he’s also had discussions about the potential to earn more touches in the offense if he was to come back to school, but that coaches told him there won’t be any guarantees about playing time.
“There's definitely opportunity. And they are saying that there's an opportunity for me to have an impact, whatever capacity that may be.”– Xavier Johnson on potentially returning to OSU
Still, Day and Hartline seem to believe Johnson will have more chances to make plays next season.
“That's definitely something that we've talked about. But like I said, it's going to be one of those things where if I come back, I have to earn a position, I have to earn every snap,” Johnson said. “It's not gonna be anything given to me. And there's no crystal ball telling me exactly the snap counts in each game. So there's definitely opportunity. And they are saying that there's an opportunity for me to have an impact, whatever capacity that may be.”
As for what position the multi-talented playmaker would spend more time at, Johnson said he’s comfortable at both wide receiver and running back, and believes Day and Hartline intend to work on expanding a role that could maximize his ability to do both.
If he doesn’t return to Ohio State, Johnson said he’ll go through the draft process, as his “ultimate goal” is to play in the NFL one day. Johnson said an NFL future isn’t his “end-all-be-all” when it comes to his football career, but he’s dreamt of playing at the highest level since he fell in love with the sport as a child.
Gaoteote is also wrapping up his fifth year of college football and his second with the Buckeyes after transferring in from USC ahead of 2021. The five-star recruit played only 51 defensive snaps this season, but found a role as a standout special teams performer, earning the Buckeyes’ special teams player of the week honors on multiple occasions.
back to back pic.twitter.com/p8MbuTHNR6— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) September 11, 2022
Gaoteote had a lukewarm response when asked how the year went for him individually, but believes his development on special teams will benefit him in the future.
“I mean the year went – it went alright. As every player, they always have big aspirations for things,” Gaoteote said. “But I definitely think the positive that came out of the year is that I kind of developed a side of my game that I never really got to develop, whether it was in high school or college. So I mean, playing special teams, I got to just develop that side of my game and try to just become a total player being able to play on defense and on special teams.”
Tough moments came “pretty much throughout the year” for Gaoteote, who hoped for a bigger role in the linebacker rotation, but said he “matured” as the season went along, embraced his role and tried to be the best teammate he could be.
Gaoteote said he hasn’t spoken to first-year defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jim Knowles much about his impending decision, but has talked to his parents and uncle, former NFL defensive end Ma'a Tanuvasa, about what he should do next. Gaoteote said it’s “fair to say” it seems unlikely he’ll return to Ohio State, but that he still doesn’t know what his final decision will be.
“Right now, just kind of praying on it, seeing where my faith leads me to and we'll go from there,” Gaoteote said.
Proctor began his fifth season of college football as a starting safety for Ohio State, but wound up playing fewer than 20 defensive snaps in each of the final seven games. Against Michigan, Proctor played only on special teams.
Proctor said not playing as much as he would’ve liked would be “hard for anybody,” but that he doesn’t “have any problem” with his role and has been all in on the brotherhood at Ohio State throughout the year.
“(This season had) a lot of ups, a lot of downs, but you just keep going,” Proctor said. “That doesn't really change. My goal is still the same goal at the end of the day.”
What is that goal, exactly?
“Get to where I want to be at the end of the day,” Proctor said. “Whether that's leave, staying or whatever it is.”
Proctor said he’s discussed his potential future with his parents and feels like he could play in the NFL if he decided to turn pro, but hasn’t put too much thought into it just yet and will hold off on doing so until the season is over.