With less than two months to go until signing day, Joshua Mickens was planning to play his college football at LSU. When Ohio State offered the four-star Indianapolis edge rusher in November, however, everything started to change.
Mickens “really wanted to play in the SEC,” which is why he initially chose LSU over a host of schools including North Carolina, Florida State and USC as well as Big Ten powers like Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. But as a self-described “real big family guy,” there was always a part of Mickens that wanted to stay closer to home.
With a desire to play in the NFL, Mickens didn’t want to prioritize proximity to Indianapolis over going to the school that he felt would develop him best. Once Ohio State entered the picture, however, Mickens saw an opportunity to get the best of both worlds.
“When I had realized I was decommitting from LSU, I just wanted to go somewhere where I knew I could be close to home and just developed to be the best player that I could be. And I knew that once they gave me the chance, I knew that place would be Ohio State,” Mickens said.
Upon receiving his offer from Ohio State, Mickens quickly connected with Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day and defensive line coach Larry Johnson. Those relationships also played a big part in his decision to become a Buckeye.
“I think I'm under great leadership with Coach Day and Coach Johnson. I know they'll take my game to the next level,” Mickens told Eleven Warriors during an interview at Lawrence Central High School this spring. “When I met Coach Day, it was like an instant impression, like I could really tell he was a great coach and a great leader and that's what really impressed me about him. And Coach Johnson, he's a figure in my life now. So he'll really help me grow into a man, that's what I truly believe, along with Coach Day.”
Importantly, Ohio State’s coaches also made a positive impression on Mickens’ mother, Lavonnya.
“She hadn’t met Coach Johnson yet, and I told her, ‘When you meet him, he's gonna blow you away. He's your type of guy. I know what kind of connection you're looking for in a coach.’ Because she's very relational, family-oriented. She wants somebody, a God-fearing man that’s coaching her son, and I told her when you meet Coach Johnson, it's gonna be a done deal,” Lawrence Central coach Will Patterson told Eleven Warriors. “And they went on the visit and she called me and was like, ‘Coach, you were right again.’”
As an Indianapolis native, Mickens looks to follow in the footsteps of several other products of the city who have gone on to become Buckeye stars in recent years, including Terry McLaurin, Pete Werner and Dawand Jones.
“It inspires me a lot,” Mickens said of their success. “It just lets me know that I could be, hopefully be the next in that line of great players.”
A high-upside pass-rusher with “untapped” potential
The similarities between Mickens and Ohio State’s most recent star from Indianapolis go beyond their hometown. Like Jones, Mickens initially thought he would play college basketball rather than football. When Patterson became Lawrence Central’s coach in 2020, however, he advised Mickens and his mother that Mickens had a bright future on the gridiron.
“I told his mom after kind of midway through his sophomore year, I said when he gets done with his sophomore year of high school, he's probably gonna have probably 10 Power 5 offers,” Patterson said. “She thought I was crazy. And I was wrong. He had like seven. But half of the Big Ten had come in and watched his tape and offered him. And I told her, I was like, just from what we see, what I see in him as a player and some of the kids I've had a chance to coach here that were successful and went on and played (in college) and All-Americans and all that stuff, I said, ‘He's got it.’”
Once those offers started pouring in, Mickens turned his focus toward playing college football. He continued to play basketball through his senior year, though. As such, his arrival at Ohio State this summer will mark the first time he’s ever solely focused on football as an athlete, which leads Patterson to believe Mickens has the upside to become a far better football player than he already is.
“Football is untapped for him,” Patterson said. “He's done a phenomenal job for us, obviously, to be able to play the level that he’s gotten to in high school. But the amount of work that's available for him to put in, it's untapped. Because he's such a multi-sport guy, trying to meet the demands of every other sport, that he didn't really have time to invest like he should in football. So if they're excited about what they see now from him as a high school guy, just the potential, it'll get scary once he gets into their weight program and working with Coach Johnson.”
Mickens has already shown plenty of ability as a high school football player, recording 152 total tackles with 43.5 tackles for loss, 18.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles over the last two years. He was named the state’s best defensive lineman by the Indiana Football Coaches Association in 2022.
A four-star prospect ranked as the No. 119 overall prospect in 247Sports’ composite rankings for the 2023 class, Mickens is a gifted athlete with plenty of high school tape showing his ability to get after the quarterback and disrupt plays in the backfield. The biggest thing Mickens will need to do once he gets to Ohio State is continue to develop physically, as he weighed only 225 pounds as of this spring. He expects to eventually bulk up his 6-foot-3 frame to around 250 pounds.
“I gotta really step up on getting myself physically ready,” Mickens said. “I just gotta do things necessary to be able to step on campus and be able to compete and just be able to work and be at a level where I could have the chance of getting some playing time my freshman year.”
That said, Mickens may not end up being a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end at Ohio State, at least not on a full-time basis. While Jim Knowles put the Jack position on the back-burner in his second spring as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, he said he still expects the position to be a big part of his defensive scheme in the future once the Buckeyes have the right personnel to utilize it effectively. Mickens was recruited with that vision in mind, and he’s bought into the idea of playing the hybrid outside linebacker role in Columbus.
“I think personally, it's the perfect fit for my game,” Mickens said of playing Jack. “I'll be able to showcase athleticism and like, even going to the league now, it's all about being athletic and being strong. Especially at the outside linebacker position, being able to be real versatile, being able to help in coverage, being able to pass rush and be able to do all of those things. So yeah, hopefully.”
“I just wanted to go somewhere where I knew I could be close to home and just developed to be the best player that I could be. And I knew that once they gave me the chance, I knew that place would be Ohio State.”– Joshua Mickens on choosing Ohio State
Seeing as he’s a summer enrollee who is still developing physically, Mickens probably won’t play a big role as a true freshman. JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer lead Ohio State’s defensive end depth chart while Caden Curry and Kenyatta Jackson are in line to be the first edge rushers off the bench, while Mitchell Melton and C.J. Hicks have been cited as candidates to play Jack.
That said, Mickens hopes to make a big impact for the Buckeyes and become a first-round NFL draft pick by the end of his Ohio State career. Patterson believes he’s capable of achieving those goals if he puts in the work.
“For him to be able to go mix the tools that he has now with what he can get from Coach Johnson, he is a guy that I hope he's a first-round guy,” said Patterson, who briefly played for the Houston Texans after his own college football career at Indiana. “I know how that stuff goes, but we pray for nothing but his favor and success when he gets over there. Good health. Because I think if he does all that, he'll be able to play on the next level.”