The memory of his late father drives Robert Landers.
A year ago when he asked himself if he belonged with the Ohio State Buckeyes, if he stood a chance of making the transition from Wayne High School to the biggest stage in college football, when he was dealing with the frustrations of juggling class and practice and conditioning, Landers thought of his dad, Robert Landers Sr., who is never far from his mind.
“I have his name tattooed on the inside of my arms,” Landers said. “I think about him every night. Every night I pray. I talk to him. I know he’s looking over me. If it wasn’t for him, God and my grandmother — she just passed away as well — I wouldn’t be performing the way I am.”
Robert was 10 when his dad was shot to death in Trotwood on Dec. 19, 2006. The case remains unsolved. Almost a decade later, his oldest son has emerged as one of the biggest surprises on one of the nation’s best defenses.
Landers, a redshirt freshman defensive tackle, leads the team with five tackles for a loss. He could only imagine what his dad would think to see him now.
“He’d probably be the most excited person ever,” Landers said.
The 6-foot-1, 285-pound Landers is the shortest Ohio State defensive lineman on the depth chart by two inches. That’s one reason he didn’t have any scholarship offers from major programs until the fourth game of his senior year at Wayne.
Coaches told him all the time, “You can play, but you’re undersized.” Landers thought, “If I can play, I can play,” and set out to prove them wrong. West Virginia was among the first schools to offer him a scholarship, and it was his best offer at the time, so he committed in October 2014.
“Growing up my biggest thing was getting college paid for,” Landers said. “Football is football, no matter where you go. Yes, some programs are better than others, but the biggest thing was just getting a free education so my mom wouldn’t have to worry about it.”
As Landers moved through his senior season, he elevated his game and focus, he said. He had three sacks during a postseason run that saw the Warriors beat Elder, Dublin Coffman, Lakota West and Moeller before losing 31-21 to St. Edward in the state championship game. After each of those games, Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell heard from the coaches who lost to Wayne and even the St. Edward coach about Landers, who Fickell admitted was not high on Ohio State’s radar.
“You’ve got to look at this kid,” they told Fickell over and over.
On a Friday afternoon in December 2014, Fickell found himself visiting Wayne with tight ends coach Tim Hinton.
“I called my mom and told her I had an offer from Ohio State,” Landers said. “She’s like, ‘Stop playing.’ I said, ‘I’m dead serious. They want me to take my official tonight.’”
Landers did visit Ohio State that night because it was the last chance to do so before a recruiting black period. He accepted Ohio State’s offer even though he felt loyal to West Virginia.
“One thing about Ohio State is it’s hard to say no to coach (Urban) Meyer,” Landers said.
Landers talked to the media Wednesday for the first time since he debuted for the Buckeyes on Sept. 3 against Bowling Green. As he spoke, Meyer walked behind the group of reporters and remarked to another player about how amazing it was that Landers was giving an interview.
Landers gave a great interview, but he said he doesn’t like being the center of attention. He doesn’t like the spotlight. He can fit in on campus better than most players because of his size, though at 285 pounds, he’s the third-heaviest defensive lineman.
Landers deserves the spotlight, however, because of all that he’s done in the first four games for the No. 2 Buckeyes. He was asked Wednesday what it takes to thrive in major college football.
“You’ve just got to have that will and drive,” Landers said. “You’ve got to be hungry. At times it’s going to be hard. Actually it’s going to be hard a lot. But you’ve got to love what you do and have a why for why you do what you do.”
“What is your why?” a reporter asked.
“My mom and my two younger brothers,” Landers said. “If it wasn’t for them, honestly … I had days where I thought maybe I’m not cut for this, but you sit back and ask yourself, ‘Why did I come here? Why do I do what I do? Why do I love what I do?’ They are my why.”
Landers’ youngest brother, Tallice, is a sophomore at Wayne. The middle brother, Trey, is a freshman guard with the Dayton Flyers. Trey shared a photo on Twitter on Wednesday of his transformation since he arrived on UD’s campus. A couple months with the Flyers have turned him into a sculpted veteran.
“Between me and my younger brothers, we all know how to work,” Robert said. “We love what we do. Basketball is his passion. At times he tells me, ‘It’s getting hard, bro.’ I’m like, ‘It’s college. It’s not high school. It’s a whole other ballgame. Basketball is not just basketball anymore.’”
The brothers talk daily. When Trey struggles, Robert tells him to pick his head up.
“I know he’s in the gym almost every night,” Robert said. “I try to Facetime him. He Facetimes me an hour later. I’m like, ‘Where you at?’ He says, ‘In the gym playing basketball.’ I don’t even know why I ask.”
Landers had his own troubles as a freshman. He credited fellow Wayne grad Braxton Miller for helping him through some of his issues last year. Miller, then a fifth-year senior, told Landers everything he was about go through he had experienced four times. Some things, Landers just had to learn on his own.
“When you’re young and you get a lot of praise, a lot of people don’t know how to handle it,” Landers said. “When you get here, everything you did in high school is done. It’s checked at the door. Coming in, I know I had a lot of first times getting put on my back. I’ll never forget the first time I got double-teamed by Billy Price and Taylor Decker. They drove me five yards and dumped me into the linebacker. That was the worst experience of my life. I’ll never forget Taylor said, ‘Welcome to Ohio State.’”
Four games into his career, Landers has proved he belongs.
“It’s been pretty fun,” Landers said. “I’m starting to get a little momentum. I’m starting mentally to be able to slow the game down. Right now I’m taking it one day at a time, one game at a time, one practice at a time. I’m taking advantage of every opportunity I get. I’m a little short for my size, but it plays to my advantage. As coach (Larry) Johnson likes to say, I’m gravity challenged. A lot of offensive linemen are 6-3 or plus. It tends to be a little more difficult for them to bend down. One thing about me is I’m quick off the ball, and since I am a little shorter, I”m able to use my leverage to my advantage. I try to play my game.”
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