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Ohio State’s Transfer Portal Strategy: Quality Over Quantity

Despite losing 25 to the portal, the Ohio State transfer portal strategy prioritized quality additions rather than quantity like some others.
Despite losing 25 to the portal, the Ohio State transfer portal strategy prioritized quality additions rather than quantity like some others.

Ever since its inception, the Ohio State transfer portal strategy has paid dividends. From Justin Fields in 2019 to Caleb Downs this year, the Buckeyes and Ryan Day have prioritized complementing the roster. Compared to other programs that seemingly lose and gain entire teams through the portal, Ohio State has had to hit on each of its transfers.

One thing has been clear, Ohio State’s transfer portal philosophy is quality, not quantity. The Buckeyes lost two dozen players to the portal this offseason but only brought in seven. While the Buckeyes benefit from a handful of NFL-ready players returning, Day and his staff brought in players who can contribute immediately and complement the returning players.

Ohio State in the Transfer Portal

A Different Kind of Southern Strategy

Of the seven incoming transfers headed to Columbus, five came by way of the SEC. Ohio State has established itself in the deep south in recruiting. Urban Meyer was regularly pulling in top-10 classes thanks to an aggressive approach in places like Texas and Florida. Day, to this point, has continued that approach in both recruiting and in the portal.

For most programs, Downs, Quinshon Judkins, and Julian Sayin would be the crown jewels of a portal haul. For the Buckeyes, they’ve brought in the top quarterback, running back, and safety in the nation from the portal according to 247Sports.

Downs’ impact is going to be felt from the first snap. He was a Freshman All-American, SEC Freshman of the Year, and First-Team All-SEC honoree. He jumped in the portal after Nick Saban retired. In his lone season in Tuscaloosa, Downs led the Tide with 107 tackles, marking the first time a freshman led the team in tackles in Alabama history. He comes to Ohio State with high expectations and was recently named to the Lott IMPACT Trophy watchlist.

Perhaps the offensive equivalent in terms of impact will be the former Ole Miss running back, Judkins. Despite already having TreVeyon Henderson and his 2,745 yards and 32 touchdowns, Day courted the two-time First-Team All-SEC star. In two years at Ole Miss, Judkins amassed 2,725 yards and 31 touchdowns.

The addition of Downs was a no-brainer. It was akin to the “best player available” thought process in the NFL Draft. You go out and get talent and then figure out where they’ll play later. Judkins was a slight surprise with Henderson still in tow. However, when the running back room lost four members. Even with Judkins, the unit’s depth will be a question. After the two at the top, all Ohio State has is a pair of true freshmen and a walk-on.

The Tide Continues to Turn

In addition to Downs, Ohio State’s transfer portal haul added two more former Saban pupils. According to 247Sports, the top quarterback in the transfer portal was Sayin and sixth-best overall. In all reality, Sayin is just a true freshman who was released from his Letter of Intent as Saban retired. Sayin was a five-star recruit and has often been lauded by coaches and media as the most accurate of the Ohio State quarterbacks. Despite being a true freshman early enrollee, Day was quoted as saying he was “in the mix” in a Spring presser. If he beats out Will Howard (a Kansas State transfer) for the job before the Week 1 bout with Akron, Sayin would be the first true freshman to start Week 1 for the Buckeyes since Art Schlichter in 1978.

Sayin impressed in Spring practices but ultimately struggled in the Spring Game. The plan is likely to have Howard take the reigns this year and then have an all-out battle for 2025. Sayin should be right in the middle of it all.

The third former Alabama player to make his way north is Seth McLaughlin, a 24-game starter. Recency bias is strong and has affected the perception of McLaughlin to Ohio State. In the Rose Bowl, he and the Alabama quarterback were not on the same page due to cadence issues, thus resulting in several errant snaps. All reports out of Spring practice indicate that he has put those issues behind him and he’s battling for the starting job.

The Magic Number

In addition to Howard, Downs, McLaughlin, Sayin, and Judkins, the Buckeyes added a pair of likely depth players in Will Kacmarek and Keenan Nelson, Jr.

Kacmarek comes to Ohio State by way of Ohio after spending three years with the Bobcats. He is considered one of the top tight end transfers in the Big Ten this year. He came to Ohio as a defensive lineman and changed positions, so he redshirted his freshman season. Then, in 2022, he accounted for 264 yards off 20 receptions. Last year, he replicated those numbers with 243 yards and two scores off 22 receptions.

The question will be how he’s utilized at Ohio State. The Buckeyes have a few receiving threats in Gee Scott, Jr. and Jelani Thurman so Kacmarek could be more of a blocking tight end. Even then, there is an opening at the position and if he gets onto the field for his blocking chops, it will give him more opportunities as a receiver.

Finally, and most recently, Nelson rounded out the Ohio State transfer portal class. In two seasons with South Carolina, Nelson appeared in 15 games with three starts, all coming last year. He was a four-star recruit who had to battle injuries in his time. Nelson was considered a corner during the recruiting cycle but was utilized as a nickel and safety with the Gamecocks. In total, he recorded 13 tackles, a tackle for loss, a pass breakup, and a blocked punt.

With Downs and Lathan Ransom heading up the safety room, Nelson will be fighting with Jayden Bonsu and Malik Hartford for the rotation.

Less is More

Whether it be intentional or out of necessity, year over year, the Ohio State transfer portal classes have been small. While programs like Colorado, Louisville, Indiana, and Memphis have 30+ incoming transfers, few FBS programs have welcomed fewer than Ohio State. However, when it comes to average 247Sports rating, the Buckeyes top the list.

It cannot be ignored that scholarship limits played a role. While Ohio State lost 25 to the portal, it added 23 freshmen and retained over a dozen NFL-eligible players. Even if Day had his eye on more within the portal, there would be no more room. The Buckeyes look to be all-in for 2024 and a quality-over-quantity approach to the portal could be what pushes the team over the hump.


Photo courtesy: Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK


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