NCAA champions don't hit the transfer portal every day, so when New Jersey standout and Rutgers grad Nick Suriano's name surfaced as a portal entrant earlier this week, it sent reverberations across the sport. The two-time national finalist and 2019 NCAA Champion is one of the most talented lightweights of his generation, and will be a huge injection of star power for whatever school lands him.
Sources close to Ohio State's wrestling program told Eleven Warriors there is mutual interest in bringing the four-time New Jersey high school champion to Columbus.
Suriano, who graduated from Rutgers in the spring and is one of just two NCAA champions in school history, spent the summer in the Southwest training with the Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club at Arizona State. While the Sun Devils may have the inside track on securing his commitment, James Kratch at NJ.com reported that, "The NCAA’s recent name, image and likeness rule changes played a role in Suriano’s decision to pursue a return to collegiate competition."
If that is a factor, Ohio State has a compelling argument, both in terms of roster fit, and in terms of marketability.
How Suriano Fits The Roster
One of the biggest holes in the Buckeye lineup in the past two seasons has been 133 pounds. Since Luke Pletcher moved up at 141 – and then graduated – it's been a tough row to hoe for true junior Jordan Decatur.
Suriano would immediately add 20 points to the Buckeye team total at the NCAA tournament, putting Ohio State squarely in contention for a team trophy. With Anthony Echemendia or Dylan D'Emilio at 141, and NCAA finalist Sammy Sasso at 149, the amount of talent the team would field at the light end of the roster would be among the best in the country.
And for Suriano, the opportunity to train with not only wrestlers of that caliber, but also with Ohio State assistants Logan Stieber and J Jaggers, who have six NCAA championships between them at 133 and 141 pounds, is an extremely strong recruiting pitch. Stieber also holds a World Championship in freestyle to go along with his four NCAA titles; Suriano was training for an Olympic team berth until a positive COVID-19 test held him out of his year's trials.
Ohio State has had recent success bringing in transfer talent to bolster its roster. Stanford transfer Joey McKenna came to Columbus in 2017 after winning a pair of Pac-12 championships and proceed to win a pair of Big Ten championships, too; he was a controversial call away from winning the 141-pound NCAA title the same year Suriano won the 133-pound crown at Rutgers.
Four-time conference champion. Three-time All-American.— Ohio State on BTN (@OhioStateOnBTN) June 8, 2021
"Joey McKenna was the real deal."@ShaneSparksBTN and @TJKeepOn rank @Joey_McKenna of @wrestlingbucks as No. 2 at 141 over the last decade. pic.twitter.com/iIL1nLX77S
Between having a need at his weight in the lineup, and the tangibles the Buckeyes offer in terms of coaching, training partners and by having the best facilities in the country, it seems like a potential match made in heaven, at least on paper.
Addressing The NIL Question
But as the NJ.com report noted, the traditional tangibles of roster spot, coaching staff and facilities aren't the only factors in recruiting elite talent in the NIL era. Given that there isn't a professional market for wrestlers after college the way there is for football and basketball players, an athlete like Suriano who might have otherwise been done with college after graduation might now look at exploiting NCAA star status as the best way to make a buck in the sport of wrestling.
Talent always draws a following, and Suriano has a big one. His Instagram account – which was basically dead air from March 23, 2020 until two days ago – has more than 104,000 followers. There's only one wrestling program in the country with that many followers on Instagram, by comparison.
Ohio State does extremely well in the social media game, of course. In addition to having the most-followed Big Ten athletics program in the country, according to social media analysis conducted by strategy firm SkullSparks, the Buckeye wrestling program generated the most total social media interactions of any wrestling program in the country last year.
NCAA wrestling teams generating the most interactions on official accounts (IG+TW+FB) in 2020. pic.twitter.com/c2rLo3Nc93— SkullSparks (@SkullSparks) February 13, 2021
Add to that the reality that Columbus is a much larger city with more business... i.e., more potential sponsors and brand partners... than programs in places like State College (where Suriano began his NCAA career) or Iowa City. Between the social media presence and the size of the city and its media market, and the scales on NIL opportunities slide pretty clearly in Ohio State's favor.
Will Suriano see it that way? He and athletes like him are in uncharted waters yet. Very few college wrestlers have come out with major endorsement deals, though several Buckeyes have posted what appear to be sponsor/partner posts and messages in the days since NIL became a reality.
Ohio State's partnership with Opendorse, known as "THE Platform" is designed to help student athletes assess their current brand value and create a roadmap to market it. Having those resources at his disposal could be a major incentive for an athlete of Suriano's stature, if NIL is truly a major consideration.
Several former Buckeyes are currently listed as "Team Rudis" sponsored athletes on the local apparel company's website, headlined by Olympic gold medalist Kyle Snyder and including Myles Martin, Kollin Moore, Nathan Tomasello and Luke Pletcher. Other former Buckeyes including Ke-Shawn Hayes and Micah Jordan have frequently appeared as models in Rudis advertisements, so it's not a stretch to imagine other current and future Buckeyes starring in the company's marketing materials.
Suriano likely has his pick of schools. Although he's been away from college wrestling the past two seasons chasing Olympic dreams, he is a proven commodity on the mat and would add major production to pretty much any program he chooses.
If there is mutual interest in him coming to Columbus, it is still also fair to say that Arizona State likely has the inside track given that he's been training there over the past year. But if it comes down to opportunities to bring home the bacon, the Buckeyes have as good a shot as anyone.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Suriano as Rutgers' only NCAA Champion in school history. In fact, Rutgers has two NCAA Champions to its credit.