Ohio State coach Urban Meyer opened the curtain at Pro Day on March 23. He perched at the 40-yard line at the Woody Hayes Athletic Complex. He chatted with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Everybody in attendance could see that.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh closed the curtain at Pro Day the following day. The only way to spot Belichick in the Al Glick Field House was to look behind Harbaugh during a short interview with Mike Mayock on the NFL Network.
The turnouts in Columbus, Ohio, and Ann Arbor, Mich., were massive. Ohio State Pro Day drew nine NFL coaches and 122 NFL representatives. Michigan drew eight NFL coaches and 143 NFL representatives. All 32 teams were represented at both events.
It's the third leg inthe escalation of college football's best rivalry.We watched Ohio State beat Michigan 30-27 in double overtime in the regular-season finale;a game decided by a few inches. We watched both schools reel in top-five recruiting classes in the latest cycle. Now, the 2017 NFL Draft could feature somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 players selected between the two schools.
Ohio State sent 12 players to the 2016 NFL Draft, an impressive group that included star power inDallas' Ezekiel Elliott and San Diego's Joey Bosa. Michigan could top that number April 27-29 at the 2017 NFL Draft in Philadelphia. It doesn't matter how the curtains are positioned. Ohio State and Michigan are mass-producing NFL talent together again.
Cardale Jones led the Buckeyes to a national championship in 2014 and spent his rookie year in Buffalo. Jones clutched a NFL football in his hand after Ohio State Pro Day before letting all those rookies know what was coming next in a whirlwind that includes the NFL Draft, rookie minicamp and OTAs before the preseason even starts.
"Just prepare for a long year," Jones said. "This will be the longest year of their lives with football and things like that. … I don't know what other schools go through and I don't ask other guys how was your rookie year coming from such-and-such school, but I think me personally I was prepared for that long year."
A few hints between the curtains offer clues as to how Ohio State and Michigan are doing that as well as anybody right now, and the tactics share many more similarities than differences. That's going to make the competition between those two schools even more compelling for many long years to come.
Michigan closing draft gap?
Ohio State and Michigan will always sell tradition, on-field success and education. Meyer and Harbaugh are going to coach in more great games and continue to bring in five-star recruits. That difference in NFL talent, however, is a big reason why the Buckeyes have won the last five and 12 of the last 13 meetings.
"The one thing with an Ohio State football player, they come ready," Saints coach Sean Payton said in a video via Eleven Warriors.
Ohio State beat Michigan 42-39 in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown in 2006, and the gap widened after that.Since the 2007 NFL Draft, Ohio State has put 57 players and 13 first-round picks in the NFL Draft, including last year's banner class that included five first-round picks. Thereis no sign of that stopping under Meyer'swatch. The Buckeyes have an efficient football factory in working order.
Michigan, however, is back in operation. The Wolverines have just 34 NFL Draft picks and four first-round picks in the same stretch, and 15 picks and two first-round picks were in 2007-08. That was a group that featured former No. 1 pick Jake Long and four-year starter Chad Henne. Michigan's Pro Day surpassed that hype, however, in Harbaugh's third season.
Defensive end Taco Charlton should be the first Michigan player off the board for that draft class. For the first time in a long time, the Wolverines have a legitimate response to the Buckeyes.
"Michigan football is definitely on the up-rise," Charlton said. "What Coach Harbaugh has been able to do and what these coaches have been able to do is only going to continue."
Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan is a self-described "underdog" heading into the 2017 NFL Draft, which might seem unfathomable given his credentials. The former five-star recruit developed into an all-Big Ten linebacker and team leader over the past three seasons. Yet McMillan referenced thatMeyer-Belichick dynamic, which he learned more about after that first face-to-face meeting with Belichick.
"When you first meet him, you're scared, because he's quizzing you," McMillan said. "It's like a little test, but after we got the done with the tests, quizzes and drawing up the defense, he's pretty cool."
McMillan was prepared because Meyer uses similar tactics. Everything is a test. Everything is a competition. McMillan ran a 4.61 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine but he still participated in drills in front of Belichick, Payton and seven other NFL coaches. He's a projected second-round pick, but it will be interesting to see if that impressive performance bumps him up a few spots.
A day later, Michigan receiver Jehu Chesson talked about his interview. Only that interview came from Harbaugh before the NFL Combine. Harbaugh's experience as a head coach with the San Francisco 49ers from 2011-14 can't be understated.
"Coach Harbaugh is good at exposing people who don't know their stuff," Chesson said. "You'd rather be exposed in close quarters than when you're out in the field. That's his policy, if you will. … It's a huge positive to have NFL coaches."
Chesson received another tip from incoming passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton, who served as Cleveland's offensive coordinator in 2016.
"I know one of the things that when they put you on the board to draw out a play you always write out your play before you actually draw it out," Chesson said. "That's something Pep was on me about. I would memorize the play, but I'm doing myself a disservice if I don't write it out. Let's say I forgot a motion or something like that."
So "Z Short 2 Double Right"might not sound important to most people, but for a player like Chesson, projected to be a mid- to late-round pick, getting that exactly right could make a much-needed difference.
Talent comes fast
It's not just the talent development. It's the ability to develop that into top-10 caliber players in one year.
Charlton is Michigan's best example. He compiled 5.5 sacks as a junior in Harbaugh's first season, but he had an idea of what was coming next when defensive coordinator Don Brown arrived last spring. Charlton told his story from the Oosterbaan Field House in front of a pack of reporters.
"If you ask guys last year I said, 'Listen, I feel like I'm a first-round pick and I'm going to be in the first round,' " Charlton said. "People were looking at me like I was crazy just because I had not done much. I always had faith in what I could do, and when Coach Brown came in I knew I could show it."
Charlton jumped into a first-round projection after a breakout season in which he had 10sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in just 10 games as a senior.
Ohio State safety Malik Hooker told an almost identical story. He had never started a game before defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, a former head coach with the Buccaneers, arrived last spring. Hooker finished with seven interceptions and three pick sixes and likely will be a top-10 pick. He remembers the advice from Eli Apple, who was selected by the New York Giants with the No. 10 pick in 2016.
"Not being complacent," Hooker said. "A lot of guys go to the NFL and want to spend lots of money and buy insane stuff. That's where guys go broke. Just not being complacent and remembering what got me where I am.
"Coach Meyer and his staff do a great job of developing NFL players," Hooker said. "Look at the NFL now with guys like Zeke (Elliott) and Mike Thomas. Guys that were rookie players of the year and stuff like that going on."
The volume on both sides is ridiculous. Hooker, Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley all checking in with possible first-round grades. That's one year after Apple, Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell left for the NFL. Curtis Samuel, Pat Elflein, Dontre Wilson and Noah Brown also could be drafted for the Buckeyes.
Charlton, Jabrill Peppers, Chris Wormley, Jake Butt and Jourdan Lewis will be high-round picks for Michigan, but the class continues with names such as Ryan Glasgow, Ben Gedeon, Matthew Godin, Delano Hill, Channing Stribling, Dymonte Thomas and Jeremy Clark on defense and Chesson, Amara Darboh, Erik Magnuson, Kyle Kalis and De'Veon Smith on offense.
The NFL Draft is full of fascinating players, and the Buckeyes and Wolverines have one each. Samuel and Peppers earned Sporting News first-team All-American honors as two of the best all-purpose players in college football in 2016.
They've generated a lot of draft interest as a result, even if their NFL role hasn't been defined. Samuel burned through receiver and running back drills Thursday before being asked to define which offensive position he'll play in the NFL. Remember, Samuel ran a 4.31 at the NFL Combine.
"I don't know," Samuel said. "As you see today I did some inside receiver, I did some routes out of the backfield, I did some outside. I did some running back drills after the receiver stuff. I caught some punts. So I did a lot of stuff today.Once again,
Again, Michigan has a similar story. Peppers arrived at the Oosterbaan Field House a little later than everybody else. He spent 20 minutes answering the criticisms that have been lobbed in his direction since the end of the season. Remember, Peppers ran a 4.46 at the NFL Combine and worked out with the linebackers and defensive backs. He's one of the most enticing athletes in recent memory.
"A lot of people are downplaying me as a football player because, what have I heard? I don't have a true position," Peppers said. "In a sense, I was just a guy doing whatever I can to help the team win, whatever my coach asked of me. And if I'm getting punished for that, then so be it. I would do it all over again if I had to because I'm a winner."
Keep it coming
That's the common link. Both teams are winning big with big-time coaches, and the NFL is going to reap the benefits from the great games and top-five recruiting cycles.
"The Game" is on like never before. The recruiting battles are hot and close. Consider that Elflein, Charlton and Butt all played their high school football in Pickerington, Ohio. That's three NFL Draft picks from the same hometown in one draft.
More waves are coming, too. Michigan's Maurice Hurst Jr. and Rashan Gary have first-round potential, and Ohio State welcomed in five-star recruits such as Baron Browning, Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade to replace McMillan, Lattimore and Conley.
Listen to Hooker and Charlton tell you all about it.
"It's a young secondary but it's a scary secondary," Hooker said. "Those who were shocked with me this year wait until you see what happens with these guys."
"I have faith in them guys especially with Mo Hurst who is back again and will be a star," Charlton said. "Rashan (Gary) is back. I told him if I come back in two years and they're not talking about you right now top-10, top-five pick then I don't think you did what you were supposed to do because he has the talent seen that I've seen as a young guy."
It's the same story coming from two-storied rivalries over and over again. What makes it more intriguing is Michigan appears to be a worthy adversary in all three phases against Ohio State.
At the center of that are two hyper-competitive coaches in control of the curtains. Meyer and Harbaugh are top-five coaches regardless of level, and they just happen to be on a year-long collision course.The next competition will be the number of players that will be taken at the NFL Draft.
Is that where this rivalry stops for the players?
"Those guys will be on your team so you have to switch that rivalry mode into these guys are your teammates now," Wormley said. "I'm sure there will be jokes and all that in the locker room, but from here on out it's all business."
That's just it. It's always been big business with Ohio State and Michigan. Now, and for the foreseeable future, the business is just a little bit bigger.