Both in their talents and their situations, Justin Fields and Jonah Jackson aren’t the norm for Ohio State.
Fields broke all kinds of school and Big Ten records in his first year as a collegiate starter. Jackson walked onto campus into a starting role with the Buckeyes after graduating from Rutgers and is now on the verge of becoming one of the first interior offensive linemen drafted in this year’s NFL Draft.
The Buckeyes soon-to-be junior quarterback and the recently departed lineman are exceptions. They provided not only immediate help to fill roster holes at Ohio State, but they were both upgrades over the potential starters for Ryan Day’s rookie season as a head coach.
That’s rare to find in the transfer portal. And that’s why the Buckeyes aren’t likely to find true impact players there for next season even if they’re forced to examine it as a result of the recent dismissal of two returning defensive backs. The Buckeyes have made it no secret that the portal would be used when necessary, but it will not be a primary means of building Ryan Day’s roster at Ohio State.
“If somebody pops into the portal, we’ll do our research and find out,” he said. “Right now, we’re not doing research on guys who are on anybody’s team.”
Needs change, and that changes behaviors. The Buckeyes may not have been looking at players on anyone’s team in October, but they’re certainly looking in the transfer portal now, hoping to come across another gem that can provide depth and talent ahead of the next go ’round.
But if the expectation is that they’ll land superstars like Fields and Jackson, disappointment is likely to follow. The transfer portal isn’t usually where the best players in the country end up and most immediate and glaring success is had at quarterback, not other positions.
Still, for every success story like Justin Fields, Joe Burrow and Jalen Hurts, there are a dozen more cases like that of Brandon Wimbush, Tommy Stevens or Kelly Bryant.
Regardless, the Buckeyes are certainly going to be looking for help in the secondary, and the transfer portal is the best available option right now. One player who would have certainly been recruited hard by the Buckeyes had he gone into the transfer portal was Darnay Holmes, who ended up declaring for the NFL Draft rather than transferring, rendering any potential interest moot.
Who else is out there that could be a program fit and actually compete for playing time? Digging through a handful of the names currently in the portal, what Ohio State would find in most cases are questions, not answers. There aren’t slam-dunk options like Fields and Jackson waiting in the wings right now.
Let’s take a look at some of the names that could be considered.
Nigel Knott • Alabama • ★★★★
- Nigel Knott was ruled out medically by the Alabama medical staff in early September but clearly believes he’s capable of playing football again and is going to give it a try. He was top-10 cornerback coming out of high school, but if he couldn’t get cleared to play for the Crimson Tide, it’s hard to see how he’d be cleared by the Buckeyes.
Jamel Cook • South Carolina • ★★★★
- Another former top-100 prospect, Cook was dismissed by the Gamecocks program in October after a domestic violence charge. The Buckeyes aren’t going to risk bringing in a player with that kind of issue in his past.
Jordan Parker • Oklahoma • ★★★★
- Parker’s best season was as a freshman, and he missed his junior season two years ago after tearing his ACL. The Pittsburgh (Calif.) 4-star prospect played in 23 games for the Sooners and collected 50 total tackles — but 36 of them as came as a freshman. It doesn’t appear he’s been able to become a contributor following his injury.
Deon Jones • Maryland • ★★★★
- A recent addition to the transfer portal, Deon Jones was a starter for the Terrapins last season and has two years left to play. He’s a former 4-star prospect from Maryland who was ranked only behind Chase Young and Anthony McFarland in that class inside of his home state. The fact that he’s immediately eligible and has two years to play does make the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Jones somewhat intriguing.
Jaylen Kelly-Powell • Michigan • ★★★★
- Kerry Coombs was very close with Jaylen Kelly-Powell during his recruitment, and the Buckeyes were probably the runner-up for this former Detroit Cass Tech standout. Would Coombs try to bring him to Ohio State now? He’s played a lot of safety at Michigan and is a very smart player who could be looked at to provide depth that was lost when Riep and Wint were dismissed.
Tony Butler • Nebraska • ★★★
- A Lakewood native, Tony Butler won a state title in Division 1 in 2016 but never got the Buckeyes offer he coveted. He’s immediately eligible, and if he’s interested in coming home, he could be a viable option for providing depth and special teams help, an area he worked extensively in for the Cornhuskers.
Nick McCloud • North Carolina State • ★★★
- McCloud has the frame that the Buckeyes are looking for in a defensive back, and the Rock Hill, S.C. native would immediately eligible with his expected graduation this spring. He didn’t play this past season because of a knee injury, and it’s uncertain where he’s at with his current recovery.
That’s just a few of the many players that are out there who are available. But are any a good fit for Ohio State? That’s going to be the big question for Day and his staff, and if the way the last few seasons worked out is any indication, the best fit may not be available at this point in the calendar.
Chris Chugunov didn’t join the Buckeyes until August of 2018. Justin Fields was available in December before recruiting decisions were finalized that locked in roster spots. Jonah Jackson committed to Ohio State last winter, but he didn’t get into town until the summer. Gunnar Hoak wasn’t even in the transfer portal last April when Matthew Baldwin left the Buckeyes.
Programs can’t ignore the transfer portal in today’s world of college football, but being forced to rely on it isn’t an ideal situation, either. The Buckeyes are not in desperation mode, but if there’s a need to explore the portal now, the current options don’t provide a lot of immediate answers.