Ryan Day remembers the exact moment he knew he wanted four-star South Dakota quarterback Lincoln Kienholz to join Ohio State’s 2023 class.
In the same week the Buckeyes lost a commitment from quarterback Brock Glenn, OSU hosted then-Washington commit Kienholz and his family on an official visit on Nov. 26 for the Michigan game in what turned out to be one of the biggest recruiting weekends of the Buckeyes’ season.
While the end result of Michigan’s 45-23 victory over OSU was miserable for Day, anyone wearing a scarlet and gray uniform and the fans alike, that weekend confirmed to the Buckeyes what they already knew: Kienholz was the quarterback they had to sign in the 2023 class.
“He came here, saw the environment and was like, ‘I want this.’ And that's a huge part of it,” Day said when Ohio State signed Kienholz on Dec. 21. “This isn't for everybody. Being the starting quarterback for Ohio State is not for everybody. It's got some unbelievable things, but there's a lot of things that come with it. He kind of looked at it and was like, ‘This is what I want.’ That was important. I liked his makeup. I thought (quarterbacks coach) Corey Dennis really did a great job building a relationship with he and his mom … he was like, ‘Oh, I'll go in that room. I'll compete against anybody. Let's go.’ That's awesome. And that's something that I think we're excited about and looking forward to getting to work with him.”
While Kienholz’s recruitment may have tilted toward the Buckeyes after that November weekend, he still needed to do his due diligence. In the following weeks, OSU put a full-court press on landing Kienholz. Dennis made a trip to Pierre, South Dakota, in December after the dead period lifted. Offensive line commit Luke Montgomery went out of his way to introduce Kienholz to other OSU commits. Wide receiver commit Carnell Tate also reached out to Kienholz during the recruitment process.
Kienholz heard plenty from Day and Dennis about their track record of developing NFL quarterbacks with C.J. Stroud soon to join Dwayne Haskins and Justin Fields as Ohio State’s third first-round pick at the position in five years.
“Their message was that they obviously really liked me,” Kienholz told Eleven Warriors of OSU’s recruiting pitch to him. “And then also is that they told me to ‘Just kind of bet on yourself a little bit.’ And I think that they kind of pushed ‘Come here, get developed, have a chance to win a Heisman and maybe national championship, and then also go to the NFL.’”
Dennis wasn’t the only one making visits to South Dakota. Several Washington coaches also made the trip in an attempt to keep Kienholz committed, a commitment the Huskies had secured in late June. But that attempt ended in vain when Kienholz decommitted from Washington and in turn committed to the Buckeyes on Dec. 14. It wasn’t a decision the prized prospect took lightly.
“Honestly, it wasn't very fun, just because Washington was really good to me,” Kienholz said of pondering his decision in the final few weeks of his recruitment. “They really invested a lot of their time and energy for me too. I think the conversation with (Washington head coach Kalen) DeBoer was kind of hard just because he somewhat understood, but at the same time, he was kind of protective, because he didn't want me to decommit, ya know?”
When other schools recruit against Ohio State for quarterbacks, they sometimes point to the talent the Buckeyes have at the position as a deterrent. That’s a strategy Day finds amusing.
He rewrote the state of South Dakotas football history books by hand, they may need to make room for him on Mt. Rushmore. The kid from Pierre, SD is making his way to Columbus. Welcome to The Brotherhood Lincoln Kienholz#CHO23N | @LincolnKienholz pic.twitter.com/yzEAIH8aHt— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) December 21, 2022
“We're not bringing in anybody to be a backup,” Day said. “I think that's the other thing, there's times where someone can say ‘Well, you're just coming to Ohio State just to get in line.’ If that's the case, they don't understand what we're recruiting. I say that a bunch because that's some people's recruiting pitch to a quarterback, ‘Well, don't go there. They have all these other quarterbacks, they have all these five-star quarterbacks in a room.’
“Well, what are they saying about you? They obviously don't think you belong. And everybody has dreams of playing in the NFL. When you sit in an NFL room when you're in the preseason, you're gonna be sitting with a lot of really good quarterbacks, and you're gonna have to compete. And the challenge is, if you can make it here, you make it anywhere. And I think that's where Lincoln was really into it and never flinched.”
Kienholz chose Ohio State because he believed in the Buckeyes’ long-term plans for his development.
“I chose Ohio State just because they've had a really good past with quarterbacks,” Kienholz said. “And you can't really say they haven’t because they've put in the past three guys in the NFL. And also, I think that they established a good relationship early with me. Coaches, some recruits, stuff like that. They've been a really cool school to get to know everything, too.”
Kienholz’s journey at Ohio State will begin in the summer, as he’ll spend the spring finishing out his senior year at T.F. Riggs High School before enrolling in June. It’s a path that began when T.F. Riggs’ coach noticed Kienholz competing in an entirely different sport.
From cross-country runner to elite QB
T.F. Riggs (Pierre, South Dakota) coach Steve Steele knew Kienholz had a chance to be a special player when he was a seventh-grader. But it had nothing to do with his performance on a football field. In fact, Kienholz had never played the sport in any organized fashion at that point.
Kienholz first caught Steele’s eye running cross country. Once Steele and his fellow coaches saw Kienholz compete in sports, they knew he’d be among the most athletic kids in his class.
“That was a huge push by our coaching staff was to make sure we got him out for football as an eighth grader,” Steele told Eleven Warriors. “We kind of saw his talent progress from there. We kind of understood that at that point in time, maybe he's a quarterback, maybe he wants to play wide receiver. But realistically from our perspective, he was just the best athlete in that grade. And he's a kid that we needed to play in football.”
Being a multi-sport athlete has long been a trademark of Kienholz, as the South Dakota prospect is also a baseball and basketball standout at T.F. Riggs. If cross country was the sport that led Steele to realize Kienholz belonged on a football field, baseball was the sport that convinced him his future was at quarterback.
“One of the reasons we wanted him as a quarterback is he's such an exceptional shortstop and pitcher in baseball,” Steele said. “And I think that's where a lot of the mobility throwing comes from. He is very comfortable changing arm slots, just like as a shortstop, you've got to do on a grounder that you can get in any different way while you're moving. And that comfortable feeling with being able to throw with your feet not necessarily set, or when you're moving your feet or having to adjust your arm down, really allows him to do some special things when he does escape the pocket, or when we do call rollout passes and whatnot.”
T.F. Riggs has long had a successful football tradition, as the Governors just won their sixth consecutive state championship in South Dakota Class 11AA in November. Part of the success of the program is the dedication of resources to developing underclassmen, which Kienholz certainly benefited from. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound signal-caller spent his freshman year on varsity as a backup and understudy to starting quarterback Garrett Stout, who was South Dakota’s Gatorade Player of the Year that season and led the Governors to a perfect 12-0 record.
As a sophomore, Kienholz was named the team’s starting quarterback and led T.F. Riggs to a 9-2 season in his first year as a starter. At certain points of the year, Kienholz had what Steele called “big arm syndrome,” where he trusted his arm a bit too much, resulting in 16 interceptions that season. Two-thirds of the way through his sophomore year, Steele said Kienholz settled down, flipped a switch and became a completely different passer.
“Once he hit that moment where everything slowed down, he understood what he was looking at so much better,” Steele said. “Then he just skyrocketed and took off. And then he was not just making good throws, he was making the right good throws.”
After Kienholz led T.F. Riggs to a state title later that year, Steele knew he had an exceptional player.
“I think the state championship game his sophomore year was the first time that for me personally, I was like, ‘Wow, this kid could be special good,’” Steele said. “You know, not just an outstanding athlete playing quarterback, but he can be a legitimate, outstanding quarterback. And he's never really looked back since.”
At the start of his junior year, Steele trusted Kienholz’s ability and understanding of the game to expand T.F. Riggs’ playbook and put in more passing concepts. By his senior year, the playbook expanded even more and Kienholz was trusted to even call some plays himself.
“In terms of throwing the football, he's going to be able to make just about every throw that you want,” Steele said.
But what made Kienholz so coveted as a prospect was his dual-threat presence on the field, as he rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his junior and senior seasons. This past year, Steele said he went into a week expecting Kienholz to get 15-20 designed runs per game, then five to 10 more that were pure improvisation on his part.
“I take a lot of pride in (running) because I think our offense kind of runs off of me a little bit, just my ability to run and pass,” Kienholz said. “I think the defense has to honor that because they can't really prepare just for our pass game or just for our run game, because we got both.”
T.F. Riggs ran primarily empty sets offensively, which presented a lot of freedom for Kienholz to escape the pocket and create plays with his legs once he finished his dropback. Some opponents tried to compensate for Kienholz’s legs by using a linebacker as a spy. That strategy usually failed because a linebacker spying at six yards deep with his heels in the ground was no match for Kienholz’s acceleration and top-end speed.
“When we did run out of the empty so much, it was an easy way when teams were really worried about the run and left a light box that we could have some different designed runs schemes for him,” Steele said. “He's one of those kids where if you get them through that first level and second level, he's just got the speed to house anything, he can make any play a big play.”
Kienholz had a magnificent senior year statistically, as he completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 3,422 yards and 46 touchdowns to six interceptions. As a runner, Kienholz ran for 1,435 yards with 24 rushing touchdowns en route to leading the Governors to a perfect 12-0 season.
He also saw his recruiting stock rise nationally, leaping from a three- to a four-star recruit. He finished the 2023 cycle as the 205th-best prospect and 14th-best quarterback in 247Sports’ composite rankings.
His coach isn’t sure that’s a high enough ranking.
“A lot of coaches say this throughout the recruiting process, but, I mean, if we're not in the middle of South Dakota, is he still a four-star? Is he a five-star? You don't know,” Steele said. “So I just think that's one of the things where he's excited to try and go and prove himself.”
“In terms of throwing the football, he's going to be able to make just about every throw that you want.”– T.F. Riggs coach Steve Steele on Lincoln Kienholz
Respected all over South Dakota
If you think Steele was giddy coming up with gameplans weekly on how best to utilize the future Power Five athlete in his senior year, imagine the terror being on the opposite sidelines trying to concoct schemes to slow down a player that has the billing of a once-in-a-generation type player in South Dakota high school football.
But try they did.
Yankton High School coach Brady Muth had to face Kienholz twice in the OSU signee’s final year of prep football: Once in the regular season, and another time in the state semifinals. Neither were very fun for the Gazelles, as the Governors won 55-10 on Sept. 16 and then 59-31 in the rematch, both contests where Kienholz exploded offensively.
“If you are game planning against him, you need to bring pressure and make sure you get to him,” Muth told Eleven Warriors. “Lincoln is a great passer, he has touch and accuracy on the deep ball and can throw darts in the intermediate game. If you shut down the pass, he has the ability to use his speed to scramble and also in the direct running game. You need a big play, Kienholz can create plays for himself and his teams. Lincoln has a good football IQ and the game is not too fast for him.”
Muth played college football with Kienholz’s father and also developed a friendship with his mother at Southwest Minnesota State, so he’ll be continuing to follow Kienholz’s career at the next level.
“He’s a solid player that has potential to thrive in any type of offense, but especially a good RPO offense,” Muth said. “He has a good sense of the field as a whole and can beat edge linemen or lane fillers from the second and third levels. He has finesse on his throws but can hit an under route on a dart. His athletic ability made him impactful on defense as well. Not the best technique, but his athleticism made him a factor in the secondary.”
In 12 games this season, only two teams stayed within single digits of T.F. Riggs. Brandon Valley High School was one of them, as the Lynx played in South Dakota Class 11AAA, one higher than T.F. Riggs and the largest division in South Dakota High School football. But Kienholz and Pierre emerged victorious in the end, 43-34, on Sept. 30.
When preparing for Kienholz, Brandon Valley head coach Matthew Christensen kept facing an internal dilemma on which aspect of his game to prioritize taking away.
“Preparing to defend him was fascinating,” Christensen said. “I kept juggling factors, never quite arriving at comfortable conclusions. I knew we had to disguise. We had to mix up the pictures/contours we were showing him pre-snap and post-snap. On film, his speed was incredible. Few take good angles on him because he's deceptive. He just scoots. And his piston-knees and spins are powerful.”
Brandon Valley’s gameplan against Kienholz worked, at least temporarily. The Lynx jumped out to a 28-9 first-half lead, intercepting Kienholz and sacking him a few times to disrupt his rhythm. But the lead was short-lived.
Brandon Valley jumped out to a large lead because it successfully disguised its blitzes and concealed whether it was running zone or man coverage. As the game progressed, Kienholz read the defense like a book and exploited the defense for big gains with his legs.
Kienholz was such a threat as a runner Brandon Valley decided to rush only three defenders, lock five defenders on T.F. Riggs’ receivers and use the remaining three players as QB spies.
“Even that didn't work,” Christensen said. “He busted a huge scramble to help his team score late in the first half before they received the second-half kickoff. He's the only QB I've ever coached against who could have made that run the way he did.”
Christensen, who said he once played against Tennessee coach Josh Heupel in college, said his players will always remember what it was like to play against a future Power Five athlete.
“Playing against him was simultaneously wonderful and maddening,” Christensen said. “To behold the accuracy, loft, trajectory, touch, velocity of his throws was impressive. To witness his rare combination of speed and agility up close was beyond impressive. Kienholz has the ability to fake out whole levels of defense with his torso while his legs are taking him somewhere else.”
Like Muth, Christensen expects Kienholz to succeed even as he leaves South Dakota.
“People have spoken to me about him likely receiving a trip to graduate school for free along with undergraduate,” Christensen said. “I don't see him being – at least not immediately –available for graduate school, given that NFL teams expect a lot of their players' time.”
Another opposing coach whose respect Kienholz earned was Mitchell High School’s Kent VanOverschelde, whose team was overmatched in a 50-6 loss to Kienholz and T.F. Riggs on Sept. 10.
“In preparation for (Kienholz), first was deciphering through the offensive formations, then accounting for the QB, especially in the run game,” VanOverschelde said. “The pressure on the defense was accounting for Lincoln's ability to make decisive decisions in taking the best option. His gamesmanship and ability to make plays made it tough to defend … His ability to throw and complete passes in tight windows separates him from other high school quarterbacks that we have seen. He always conducted himself in a positive manner and difficult situations did not raise frustration, only determination that the next play would produce the results.”
VanOverschelde likened the Pierre standout to a popular character in a well-known sports movie.
“I compare him to the Benny ‘The Jet’ Rodriguez in Sandlot, when he hits the pop fly to Smalls in the outfield, as he just puts his glove up and closes his eyes,” VanOverschelde said. “Lincoln in my observation is that type of guy. He possesses the tools to be really good and understands that he needs others to succeed so that he can continue to grow and hone his craft, and use his gifts to full potential.”
The path ahead at Ohio State
Kienholz knows all too well the situation he’ll be walking into in Columbus.
Even with Stroud’s expected departure to the NFL draft, a pair of quarterbacks who held five-star ratings in their own recruiting classes (Kyle McCord and Devin Brown) will be in the quarterback room with him daily. When he committed to OSU, he did it under the impression that the No. 1-rated player nationally would be the Buckeyes’ quarterback in the 2024 class. Ultimately, five-star Arizona prospect Dylan Raiola decommitted from Ohio State later that month, but that wasn’t met with relief from Kienholz, who was prepared to be in the same room as Raiola or any quarterback the Buckeyes might bring in after him.
“It kind of goes back to what coach Dennis says. I mean, it's obviously a competition between quarterbacks, but that's not really the main thing they focus on,” Kienholz said. “I think him decommitting kind of opened doors for me for sure, but also, I think it's kind of a huge loss just to that 2024 class.”
Kienholz is only the second player from South Dakota to sign with Ohio State football in program history, with Grant Schmidt being the only other. After losing their lone quarterback commit in the 2023 class a month prior, Day and Dennis not only found a suitable replacement, but a signal-caller they believe has a very high ceiling.
Schmidt never played a snap with Ohio State in his lone season with the Buckeyes before transferring to Cincinnati, so if Kienholz takes even a single snap in his freshman season, he’ll become the first player ever from South Dakota to see the field for the scarlet and gray. That could be seen as daunting, but Kienholz sees it as an opportunity.
“I think that's really cool,” Kienholz said of his chance to be the first South Dakota-born person ever to play for Ohio State. “And I think I have a pretty good opportunity. I think just with my first year even going there, I think that some of the games that they're gonna play, they're going to be up by a lot. So I'll have the opportunity to come in and just see the field.”
After long talks and consideration, I and very blessed with this opportunity. Thank you to @CoreyDennis_ and the staff and also everyone thats been along on this ride. Im excited to announce I am committing to @OhioStateFB. #GoBuckeyes pic.twitter.com/OpO2ghcYIw— Lincoln Kienholz (@LincolnKienholz) December 14, 2022
Kienholz very well could appear in blowout wins next year, as he’ll be only the third scholarship quarterback on OSU’s roster when he reports to the team this summer for workouts, likely putting him as the third-string quarterback behind McCord and Brown barring any transfers in or out. And Kienholz is excited to develop under Dennis’ tutelage.
“Coach Dennis and I talked a little bit and he says that I have all the talent in the world in the world,” Kienholz said. “But I need to work on my skill a little bit. It's just like my footwork and a lot of like, the mental stuff that goes into games, too. So, I think that's probably the biggest part is just kind of going in to get developed. Some goals for the first year are to go in, learn a lot, get developed and hopefully see the field.”
Kienholz believes the competition he’ll face at Ohio State will make him a better quarterback in the long run.
“I take a lot of pride in (competing),” Kienholz said. “Because I've had to compete my whole life for positions, starting in my freshman year. So I honestly don't think it matters how many stars at all. Because for me, I know what I can do. And I know that I can do it to the best of my ability and hopefully earn a spot.”