Next in Line at Ohio State

The expectations will be unreasonable. Impossible to fulfill, even. Those who came before Jack Sawyer at Ohio State—players he has dissected and idolized for much of his football life—have created a tradition in which dominance is the standard.

Anything less than that will be seen as subpar, and Sawyer is content with that. He knows what defensive ends have done recently in Columbus. He understands and welcomes anyone calling him the next Chase Young. Or Nick Bosa. Or Joey Bosa.  

“I kind of love that people expect that,” Sawyer says. “I want those expectations.”

Five years of football dominance. Three top-three NFL draft selections at one position. One incredibly difficult act to follow, especially for someone who was born at OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital, a cool 2.9 miles from Ohio Stadium.

But for the player ESPN ranks No. 1 in the class of 2021, none of it is out of reach.

“We project Jack to potentially hear his name called among the first five picks of the draft when it’s his day in the sun,” says Steve Wiltfong, the director of recruiting for 247Sports, which has Sawyer only slightly lower than ESPN at No. 3 in its composite rankings. “You feel even better about that with the school he chose, given their player development.

“Jack just has this relentless drive to get to the quarterback.”

A 6’5″, 242-pound defensive end who was athletic enough to fill in at quarterback during a pinch last season at Pickerington North High School despite never playing the position, Sawyer also owns a silky-smooth jump shot and a scholarship offer in basketball. He would’ve had dozens more if football wasn’t his natural destination.

And the Buckeyes were just as natural. For prospects like this, the recruiting process can be an enormous undertaking, sorting through the offers and visits and coaches’ pitches. It’s usually not as simple as falling in love with a program at a young age and traveling 12-15 minutes—”depending on traffic”—to their future school.

It’s a drive he’s made hundreds of times in his life. It’s a culture he feels like he already lives and breathes.

Michigan has always been, and will always be, The Team Up North to Sawyer. He doesn’t call the program by its name; the respect and hatred are just too pure for OSU’s greatest rival, and it’s been that way for as long as he can remember.

Later this year, his commitment will be finalized. No drama. No speculation about decommitting. Less than a month later, he will make that familiar drive, only this time it will be different.

Photo courtesy of Nate Hillerich

From there, the anticipation will grow larger. Louder. In a place and at a position where greatness has been normalized, Sawyer will be asked to be the next one.

To him, it’s not a burden. He would have it no other way.

In the immediate aftermath of Urban Meyer‘s announcement in December 2018 that he would leave Ohio State after the season, the attention shifted in two directions.

To Ryan Day, Meyer’s handpicked replacement whom he’d groomed to one day take over. And to Sawyer, then just a sophomore, who was uncommitted but already considered a virtual lock to attend Ohio State.

Because of his talent and proximity to the school, Sawyer represented more than a 5-star defensive player. His commitment, particularly for a young head coach hoping to make an impression, was significant beyond the player himself.

Day arrived at Pickerington North High School at 7:30 a.m. the first day he was allowed to visit with players. Although Sawyer was still two years away from potentially joining his team—and with another recruiting class to assemble before then—Day met with him before anyone else.

“He made me feel at home immediately,” Sawyer says. “He let me know I was a priority for him, and I committed a few weeks after that.”

It was a moment 17 years in the making. It was a place where his passion and efforts and wonderful genetics finally converged.

Michelle Sawyer, Jack’s mother, was a McDonald’s All-American in high school. She played basketball for Bowling Green in college and eventually professionally in Europe. His father, Lyle, was an all-state football and wrestler in high school who eventually went on to play football at the University of Findlay (Division II) in Findlay, Ohio.

By the time Jack was four, Michelle saw signs. Like when she watched Jack score 12 goals in a single half in his first soccer game. The last few goals, she recalls, became almost painful to watch amid a crowd of stunned parents.

“I think we kind of realized early on that he was different,” Michelle says. “He’s just genetically gifted.” 

Not long after, Sawyer fell in love with baseball and basketball. A few years after that, when his parents allowed it, he began playing football.

Photo courtesy of Nate Hillerich

All the while, his connection to Ohio State grew. Saturdays in the fall were reserved for the Buckeyes—on his couch or in Ohio Stadium. He marveled at the way former Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis played the position. He obsessed over footage of Eddie George, a running back with a bigger build, much like his. For a while, he played the position as a result.

As an eighth-grader, Pickerington North High School coach Nate Hillerich watched Sawyer beat upperclassmen who had college offers in most drills. He knew then what was coming.

Sawyer’s local reputation blossomed. Then the national recognition began to build.

When offers started rolling in, his parents urged him to look elsewhere—not to dissuade him from playing for the school he grew up rooting for but to provide perspective and reference for what else was out there and what other schools could offer.

He visited Penn State and Michigan State. He even visited The Team Up North, which was the trip he felt was necessary.

“You’ve got to respect them,” Sawyer says. “It’s a great program, great academic school. They have a great facility and obviously a good coaching staff. So, I don’t really have anything bad to say about them.”

Still, he refuses to say the program name.

No matter where he visited, though, Ohio State was always there. In the back of his mind, he couldn’t deny a lifelong dream.

So despite the uncertainty of a coaching change, and with two years remaining to make his decision, Sawyer committed to Ohio State in February 2019—six months before Day coached his first game as full-time head coach.

He was the first commitment in his class, and the significance of the moment cannot be overstated. At a time when Ohio State was in transition, Sawyer provided stability.

Since then, his commitment along with the team’s performance under Day have helped Ohio State assemble the nation’s top 2021 recruiting class.

Before last fall, Sawyer had never played quarterback.

He has always played two ways. Defensive end is his position on defense and will likely be his ultimate destination in college and the pros. And on offense, after outgrowing running back, he was featured at wide receiver and tight end—especially in the red zone.

With Pickerington North’s starting quarterback injured and the team 0-2, however, Hillerich made Sawyer his starting quarterback on a Wednesday with the team’s next game two nights away.

For one of the best defensive ends in the country, who at the time had a combined seven sacks in his first two games, the move was a surprise. Still, Sawyer was eager to try to contribute under one condition: As long as I can still play defense.

With one full practice and a walkthrough to prepare, Sawyer debuted against Olentangy Orange. On his first drive, he fumbled the ball and nearly fell on his back. But then he managed to pick the ball up and run it for a touchdown.

“He’s a little different than most true defensive players because he’s just so skilled,” Hillerich says. “He’s a true athlete. If he focused at tight end, he’d be the best one in the country. And if he played quarterback at a younger age, he’d probably be a 5-star QB now.”

Sawyer rushed for 135 yards and three touchdowns in his first game. He also threw a touchdown pass and added a sack in Pickerington North’s first win of the year.

Photo courtesy of Nate Hillerich

He stayed at quarterback after that, leading the team to five wins in its next seven games. He threw nine touchdown passes and finished the year with 13.5 sacks despite having his defensive reps limited. During the final game of the season, he injured his MCL, though that injury is now fully healed.

Day encouraged Sawyer to do everything in his power to help the team win. His mother wasn’t as thrilled with the position change as her son was, at least at first.

“I just like watching him play,” Michelle says. “He plays with so much joy and love of the game.

“But I prefer when he’s doing the hitting, rather than everybody trying to hit him.”

The finesse button. That’s what Jason Bates, the varsity boys basketball coach at Pickerington North, has called it for many years. It’s the smoothness of the natural gifts that he’s seen in Sawyer since middle school.

It’s not a button most people have. It’s even rarer in people of his size.

“He could have not played a single game of football, and he would be a Division I basketball player,” Bates says of Sawyer. “He’s so skilled and big.”

Photo courtesy of Nate Hillerich

While it is not unusual for football players to play basketball, not many do so as effectively as Sawyer. And although his size would imply a more brutish style, Sawyer’s wide-ranging abilities on the court provide a glimpse into just how different he is.

As a freshman, Bates put Sawyer on the varsity team. And though his group was ripe with upperclassmen, some of whom had offers to play in college, Sawyer eventually found his way into the starting lineup.

“He plays pretty much everywhere,” Bates says. “He can rebound and knock down three-pointers, but his go-to move is a mid-post turnaround jumper. It’s unguardable, and he’ll score it all three levels.

“And if he’s on a fast break, it’s going to be a dunk. He can really jump. He just is masterful, honestly.”

His sophomore year, Sawyer exploded. He led the basketball team to its most wins in school history while averaging 22 points, 11 rebounds and almost three assists. He shot 58 percent from the field and 41 percent on three-pointers.

His efforts drew the intrigue of coaches, though that intrigue faded quickly for most when they learned just how coveted he was in football. Still, Sawyer earned a basketball scholarship offer from Stony Brook. Had football not been in the picture, he would have likely had dozens more, Bates says.

Unable to play basketball during his junior year because of his MCL injury, Sawyer’s basketball career is now over. Since he plans to enroll early at Ohio State, he will not play his senior season either. Still, Bates can’t help but think about what might have been.

“He’d definitely be playing in the Big Ten,” he says. “I truly believe that. He’s that good.”

The countdown is underway, and it has been for some time now. Although he still has his senior football season in front of him (or so he hopes), Sawyer has long itched to find out what the next step will feel like.

“It’s surreal to think about,” he says. “In less than seven months, I’ll be enrolled at Ohio State and hopefully on the path that the Bosas have taken and Chase Young has taken and other guys before them. That’s kind of just awesome.”

To him, it’s not pressure. It’s an opportunity. It resonates in his voice—almost a giddiness and childlike excitement about finally being this close.

Part of that is due to his readiness. Over the past five years, Sawyer has studied the way Young and the Bosa brothers thrived. In turn, he has tried to implement pieces of what made them successful into his own game.

Joey Bosa’s power and the way he could maximize it in a single rep. Young’s “off-the-wall” athleticism and imaginative repertoire of moves.

But the playing style that calls to him most is that of Nick Bosa, who finished his debut NFL season with nine sacks, a Super Bowl appearance and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.

“Nick is just such a good technician when it comes to the pass rush,” Sawyer says. “Every time the offensive line tries to put a hand on him, he’s just impossible to knock down. I try to emulate all the stuff he does with his hands.”

The goal is to combine all of these strengths—easier said than done, mind you—into a style that also highlights his unique abilities. The finesse button. And while one would expect this transformation to take years, if it happens at all, Sawyer is hoping he’ll be able to showcase a glimpse of what he can provide his freshman year.

“If you’re not going in there thinking to try to win a starting position,” he says, “I think you’re in the wrong sport.”

When he arrives, Sawyer will join an immensely gifted group headlined by Zach Harrison, another 5-star defensive end out of Ohio who looked like a future star as a freshman last fall and could set the bar even higher for Sawyer.

The hype will just grow. And the expectations to be brilliant will greet him the moment he arrives on campus for good.

Luckily it’s a quick drive, because Sawyer can’t wait.

Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.

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