There is a moment in every "under construction" program where a nail has been hammered, or a screw has been tightened and the foundation is almost complete. It's not the sign of a finished product or proof that the finished project will look amazing, but it's a good start. For Mid-American Conference football teams, that nail or screw is the state of Ohio.
Ohio recruiting is key for many college programs in or near the Ohio Valley. Fans don't need to be from the state to know that Ohio State is made up primarily of homegrown players, and that's obviously a successful formula based on the Buckeyes' success. But it's not just the Buckeyes. Illinois has started to recruit Ohio harder, Purdue has never slacked off in Ohio and Michigan's last Heisman winner was from Ohio.
But those teams go to Ohio because the state is near, because they can, not because they have to. In the MAC, for most programs, Ohio is the building block for wining, and Ball State proves it.
Ohio MAC schools know too well about the state's recruiting advantages. However, most players growing up in Ohio only see themselves growing up and playing for the state school in Columbus. Miami, Toledo, Bowling Green, Akron, become second options, and without those players, those teams would never have won their MAC Championship in this decade. But Ball State doesn't have the home state advantage, neither does Eastern Michigan and Buffalo, yet each team will start at least three Ohio players this fall.
One thing they all have in common? They all took leaps in 2007, and look to be even better in 2008, especially Ball State.
The Cardinals had the most prolific offense in the conference, and the country, last fall. Their quarterback is considered one of the best mid-major passers in what is usually a passing arena (most of the all-time college passing leaders didn't come from BCS schools, they came from mid-major programs like Hawaii or BYU). Their playmaker holds the MAC record for most all-purpose yards with more than 2,000 yards in 2007. To top it off, their leading tackler averaged nearly 10 tackles a game. And they're all from Ohio.
Nate Davis, from Bellaire, Ohio, threw for 7,348 yards and 81 touchdowns in his high school career, and is now the face of Ball State's program. Dante Love, passed for 3,700 yards and rushed for 1,800 yards at Withrow High School in Cincinnati before finding a place as Davis's No.1 target. Starting running back Frank Edmonds is from St. Edward High in Lakewood, Ohio and linebacker Bryant Haines is from Piqua.
Ball State coach Brady Hoke said at the MAC Media day last week in Detroit that recruiting Ohio is essential, and that the talent level in the state runs extremely deep. However, Hoke seemed hesitant to credit Ohio for the recent success. Hoke, in his sixth season in Muncie, said he feels that Ohio is step, but just getting players to visit Ball State was the big leap.
Jeff Genyk, head coach of Eastern Michigan, had his own opinion. The Eagles finished last season 4-8. A losing season, but considering the team was 1-11 in 2006, a third place MAC West finish was encouraging, not to mention an upset win over Central Michigan. Eastern Michigan has 22 players from Ohio, most who are contributors on the team.
Genyk said the "I-75 corridor" is full of talent, and his team has started recruiting the area with emphasis. Most of the Ohio players are from the Dayton and Toledo areas, including starting cornerback Lyle Garrison, a Dayton Carroll product. But the player that had one of the biggest impacts on the team was Shawnee High School product Ryan Downard. As a redshirt freshman he was 12th in the nation with six interceptions.
Genyk said Ohio football is among the best in the country, and going into his fifth season at Eastern, the younger Ohio recruits such as Downard could be the program's key to success in years to come.
Buffalo has only four players from Ohio, but three are integral in scoring. Kicker A.J. Principe, a sophomore from Columbus St. Francis DeSales, set a school record with 77 points last season. Buffalo is picked to finish third in the MAC East. When was the last time Buffalo was a preseason favorite?
Maybe it's all just coincidental. Maybe Ohio recruiting for MAC schools ranks under facilities and administration support as far as the early program foundations are concerned. However, reigning MAC East Champion Miami has only six starters not from Ohio. Bowling Green, picked to win the MAC East is nearly identical when it comes to home state talent.
Ball State has 29 players from Ohio, seven of which are incoming freshmen. Of those 29 players, four are picked to preseason All-MAC teams. When reports fly out of recruiting sites such as this one that says, "Illinois has started recruiting Ohio more," maybe it's because those players that didn't get a chance to be a Buckeye, go on to win a lot more than a MAC Championship ( Ben Roethlisberger). For Ball State and Eastern Michigan, they'll gladly use the leftover nails to build something great.