MADISON, Wis. — Michael Deiter recalls taking a relatively nondescript unofficial visit to Ohio State as a high school prospect. He grew up in Genoa, Ohio, two-and-a-half hours north of Columbus, and a scholarship offer from the Buckeyes would have represented a significant achievement.
But that scholarship offer never came. Ohio State had its own list of highly rated offensive linemen and pursued those players instead.
Deiter has started Wisconsin’s last 39 games over three seasons at center, guard or tackle. He has developed into one of the most versatile offensive linemen in the Big Ten and could leave school a year early for the NFL draft. Yet his 247Sports composite recruiting ranking of .8328 is lower than any of Ohio State’s 22 offensive and defensive starters.
No. 5 Wisconsin (12-0) plays No. 9 Ohio State (10-2) in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis on Saturday night. The Badgers and Buckeyes have been the two most consistent Big Ten teams in recent seasons. Ohio State is 46-6 since the start of the 2014 season, which is tops in the Big Ten and third in the nation. Wisconsin is 44-9, second in the Big Ten and fourth in the nation.
As is the case each time these teams play, the differences in recruiting approaches could not be starker.
“We’re definitely made up of different backgrounds when it comes to ratings,” said Deiter, who had seven scholarship offers, including from Big Ten schools Wisconsin, Illinois and Nebraska. “But really when it comes to the game, we’re all just football players. Whatever you were rated in high school, right now, this Saturday, it doesn’t matter. You play for Wisconsin. You play for Ohio State.
“But it’s definitely a little added something to go out and play with kids like that because you know how highly touted they were coming out of high school, all the hype they had around them. It definitely means a little something to know how they were viewed coming out of high school versus how you were.”
From 2012-17, Ohio State’s average team recruiting ranking in the 247Sports composite was 3.8, while Wisconsin’s was 42. Ohio State’s lowest-ranked recruiting class in that stretch was No. 7. Wisconsin’s highest was No. 32.
Of Ohio State’s 22 offensive and defensive starters this season, 18 were 4-star prospects, while defensive end Nick Bosa was a 5-star prospect. Only three players were rated as 3-star prospects. Meanwhile, Wisconsin does not have a single starter who was rated higher than 3 stars.
“Everyone knows here that Wisconsin’s not a big school where you’re going to get a lot of 4-, 5-star recruits,” Badgers outside linebacker Garret Dooley said. “It’s a lot of hard-nosed guys. A lot of people come from being walk-ons and they earn a scholarship. That’s kind of been the Wisconsin way here.
“Everyone has a chip on their shoulder knowing that maybe they weren’t the most highly recruited guys out of high school, but they were able to mold themselves into really solid football players. That’s something we pride ourselves on and just go out there and make sure we bring it every Saturday.”
At Ohio State, 12 of 22 starters were ranked in the top 10 at their respective positions in their high school recruiting classes. Not one Wisconsin starter was ranked in the top 10. Tight end Kyle Penniston was ranked No. 13 at his position.
The lowest-rated Ohio State starter is cornerback Damon Arnette, a 3-star prospect who was ranked as the No. 62 cornerback in his class. Deiter was ranked as the No. 62 offensive guard, and 10 Badgers starters ranked outside the top 100 at their positions.
Highest-rated offensive and defensive starters in high school, by team
|1. DE Nick Bosa (.9965)||1. LG Jon Dietzen (.8898)|
|2. CB Damon Webb (.9830)||2. TE Kyle Penniston (.8894)|
|3. RB J.K. Dobbins (.9791)||3. DE Connor Sheehy (.8857)|
|4. DT Dre’Mont Jones (.9708)||4. RB Jonathan Taylor (.8854)|
|5. LB Jerome Baker (.9697)||5. DE Alec James (.8727)|
|6. WR Austin Mack (.9649)||6. OLB Garret Dooley (.8687)|
|7. TE Marcus Baugh (.9615)||7. RT David Edwards (.8600)|
|8. RG Demetrius Knox (.9547)||8. NG Olive Sagapolu (.8522)|
|9. RT Isaiah Prince (.9533)||9. QB Alex Hornibrook (.8447)|
Wisconsin cornerback Nick Nelson and inside linebacker T.J. Edwards were 2-star high school prospects and the lowest-rated players that will start for either team Saturday on offense or defense. Nelson, who transferred to Wisconsin from Hawaii, set the Badgers’ single-season record with 20 pass breakups and leads the Big Ten in that category. Edwards could lead Wisconsin in tackles for a third consecutive season, which hasn’t been done in 21 years. Both players could declare a year early for the NFL draft.
“Obviously, they have a lot of talent, but we have a lot of talent,” Edwards said. “All the stars and stuff, it doesn’t mean much going into this game. We know we’re going to get their best. It’s not really something we’re focused on, just because we know we can match just about anything in the country.”
To further compare the programs, consider that Wisconsin’s highest-rated recruit who starts is left guard Jon Dietzen, whose rating was .8898. Nineteen of Ohio State’s 22 starters were rated higher than Wisconsin’s top recruit.
The average overall 247Sports composite rating for Ohio State’s 22 starters was .9345. Wisconsin’s average rating was .8443, but that excludes three players: Inside linebacker Ryan Connelly, tight end Zander Neuville and safety Joe Ferguson were walk-ons who didn’t even earn a rating.
“I think they’ve got their niche,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said of Wisconsin, “and they’re as good as anybody in the country recruiting to that and developing people.”
As Meyer suggests, Wisconsin has routinely excelled at developing players so that by the time they’re upperclassmen, they are every bit as good as any player in the conference at their respective positions. A FiveThirtyEight.com study released in August examined college football teams’ success relative to their recruiting numbers in 2015 and 2016 to determine which schools do the most with the least amount of supposed talent. Wisconsin ranked 13th overall and fourth among Power 5 conference schools.
Dooley didn’t become a starter until this season as a redshirt senior and ranks third in the Big Ten in sacks per game. He noted that he learned from players such as Joe Schobert, T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel, all three of whom became NFL draft picks.
“Even when you’re not playing in those first couple of years, you’re on scout team,” Dooley said. “You’re going against one of the better offenses in the nation. That’s a good way to improve your game. Our strength coaches do a great job of helping you build muscle, get bigger, faster, stronger. That’s something that, especially with myself, I was kind of able to focus on for the first few years.”
While players acknowledge high school recruiting rankings have no bearing on the outcome of the Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday, those ratings often are good predictors of overall individual talent. There is no question Ohio State has had more talented teams than Wisconsin over the years, and the results have shown on the field.
Ohio State leads the all-time series 58-18-5 and has won five consecutive games in the series. In 2011, Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Devin Smith with 20 seconds remaining to help Ohio State prevail 33-29 and ruin Wisconsin’s national championship hopes.
In 2012, Meyer’s first season in charge of the program, Ohio State defeated Wisconsin 21-14 in overtime. Although the Buckeyes were on a one-year bowl ban, Ohio State finished the season 12-0. The teams met in the 2014 Big Ten title game and Ohio State embarrassed Wisconsin 59-0.
Last season, Ohio State escaped with a 30-23 overtime victory against Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium when Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to receiver Noah Brown.
Wisconsin will appear in its fifth Big Ten Championship Game in the seven-year history of the event. But Badgers coach Paul Chryst said he hadn’t spent any time considering whether Wisconsin had begun to close the gap on Ohio State as a perennial league power.
“What they’ve done has certainly been impressive,” Chryst said. “I think our job and our goal is how can we be the best team that we can be? The focus goes on that. It’s an inward focus. I think this group is working at that, to be the best team they can be. That’s what makes them a fun group to coach.”
Despite capping its first undefeated regular season in 105 years and knocking on the College Football Playoff doorstep, Wisconsin has been pegged as a 6 1/2-point underdog against Ohio State. That’s nothing new for the Badgers, who possess a group of players that has overachieved for years based on perceived talent. They’ll have to do it again Saturday while pitted against the most skilled team they have faced this season.
“It’s nothing to get mad about or anything like that, or to say because they were a 5-star we’ve got to be super worried that when they were a senior so-and-so said they were this,” Deiter said. “All you can do is watch the film now and judge for yourself.”
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