While they have to wait until at least the spring game in April to get a glimpse of the next wave of Buckeyes in Columbus, Mickey Marotti has already gotten to see 15 of the 24 signees up close and personal since they enrolled in class earlier this month and began winter workouts.
The longtime strength and conditioning director likes what he has seen so far, too.
“From a size standpoint, it's pretty impressive,” Marotti said. “From a togetherness, serious standpoint, these guys are ready. They came mentally ready for what is coming. They came focused and they are into it. It's a really good group. We just had a meeting and everybody in our department talked about how well the freshmen were doing just taking care of their business.”
That said, the preparedness of each member of the class varies.
That is to be expected given that they are coming from all over the country and no two teenagers develop exactly at the same rate, but Marotti said two states stand out when it comes to providing players ready to go out of high school.
“I tell you what, kids that come from the state of Texas, they've got a pretty good development,” Marotti said. “Here's what I see, the state of Ohio, the state of Texas, there's actually strength programs that they’ve (established).”
Not surprisingly, he singled out Paris Johnson Jr. as a player who is ahead of the curve.
A 6-foot-7, 290-pound five-star prospect from Cincinnati who graduated from Princeton High School in December, Johnson is the top-rated player in the state and No. 9 nationally in the class.
He is viewed as someone who could compete for playing time right away, as are the four receivers in the early-enrolling group: Julian Fleming, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Gee Scott Jr. and Mookie Cooper.
“I think they can be as good as they want to be, but the receivers that have been here in the past have put an inordinate amount of work in to get to where they were,” Marotti said.
Marotti also sees promise in quarterbacks C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller, who figure to compete with each other and senior Gunnar Hoak to be Justin Fields’ backup.
“Yeah, they're good. They're there,” Marotti said. "You could see them being hungry and just trying — because they gotta improve in some things physically — but you can see them at least (having) the vision of, 'I gotta get there. I gotta get there,' Because you see Justin Fields, like it's probably not fair to see a 6-3-1/2, 230-pound athlete like Justin that loves to lift weights.”
As graduating early and enrolling in January has become more common, coaches have had to adapt.
Marotti said typically the newcomers get some special attention but are interspersed with the rest of the team fairly quickly.
This year with so many freshmen already in town, they are working in their own group.
That has multiple advantages for the coaches, who can give more individualized attention, and the players, who can commiserate in the shock to the system college can be compared to high school.
"Spend more time on technique, spend more time on coachability, spend more time on teaching, not just technique but taking care of your body, making sure you're doing what you're supposed to do,” Marotti said. “The importance of this exercise as opposed to this exercise, where you need to be in five weeks, where you need to be in four weeks. When you have your older players (also working out), it's kind of like chaotic so you really can't do that because you're kind of focused on something else. Now you can put all your laser (focus) right onto those young guys.
“I just think it's easier when there’s a bigger group,” Marotti said. “Like when there's three guys, that's a bad deal. When there's only three guys, there's nowhere for them to go. With this big group that are always together and they're always pushing each other, because in that big group, you have more of a chance to have positive leadership early on than you do if you have three guys.”
Early-enrollees or not, incoming freshmen often tend to need a little de-programming from the recruiting phase of their careers.
After being wooed for two or three years by college coaches, the reality of becoming the low man on the totem poll can be harsher for some than others.
“You guys all understand recruiting and the things that happen in recruiting — everybody's got to be nice to everybody,” Marotti said with a smirk. “But like now I don't have to be nice to anybody. Some of the things that I had to go through when they're on campus recruiting and all the fun stuff and like now it's real.”