Ohio State coach Urban Meyer spent the majority of his opening statement at his National Signing Day press conference rattling off names of true freshmen he expected to have an impact in some form or fashion this fall.
One by one, he discussed the merits of various defenders he expected to see time on the Ohio Stadium turf in 2014, beginning with all four linebackers and ending with a trio of defensive backs in Cleveland Glenville products Erick Smith and Marshon Lattimore and Detroit Cass Tech’s Damon Webb.
Expectations don’t always meet reality, though. In 2013, a pair of five-star true freshmen in linebacker Mike Mitchell and cornerback Eli Apple ended up redshirting despite some serious concerns at both linebacker and defensive back for the Buckeyes. It’s quite possible – probable, even – that some of those seven players mentioned by Meyer end up sitting out the entire 2014 campaign for any number of reasons.
One player among the four defensive backs that Ohio State signed does appear pointed toward a redshirt season, and not without reason. New Castle, Pa., four-star athlete Malik Hooker – a prodigious talent that OSU has designs on lining up as its safety of the future – has only played two seasons of football and will likely need time for his increasingly sharp technique to match up with his unparalleled athleticism.
“Malik Hooker is a guy who only played two years of football,” Meyer said at the podium on Feb. 5. “I watched him play basketball and he certainly has the athleticism and size. It's just experience. So he might take a little bit longer, but that's an area obviously that we need to improve.”
Scout.com analyst Bill Greene echoed that sentiment, telling BuckeyeSports.com that Hooker could end up as one of the most successful members of the class even if his impact isn’t felt immediately.
“I think he has as much upside as anyone in this class when you look at a run, jump, quick-type of athlete, but his football is behind some of the other guys in the class and he’s not enrolling early,” Greene said. “I think a redshirt year would be great for him.”
Hooker’s winding journey to Columbus actually began in a classroom less than three years ago.
He is a basketball player by trade – and a successful one at that. His vicious, rim-rattling dunks have been featured on SportsCenter. The sport has always been his first love.
For his first two years of high school at New Castle, Hooker never even bothered to play football. That all changed when he ended up in the classroom of Joe Cowart, the newly installed football coach who teaches mathematics and communications.
At 6-2, 190 pounds, Hooker already stands out when placed next to the average high school student. Having seen what he’d done on the basketball court made him even more impressive. So Cowart began to ask. And ask. And ask.
“My coach was pretty much begging me,” Hooker told BuckeyeSports.com. “He asked me to play pretty much every day in his class.”
One day, the answer was yes.
His raw talent didn’t take long to shine through. In his first game, Hooker faced off against Monaca (Pa.) Central Valley wide receiver Robert Foster, a five-star prospect who ultimately became a member of Alabama’s 2013 recruiting class. Central Valley handed New Castle a 31-7 defeat, but Hooker showed glimpses of the promise that would eventually land him offers from just about every D-1 school on the eastern seaboard.
“This was Malik Hooker’s first football game for us, so we didn’t know a lot about him,” Cowart told BuckeyeSports.com. “There were long stretches in that game where he was the best football player on the field, and it wasn’t debatable. Even though Foster was one of the top kids in the country, Malik was the best player on the field for long stretches.”
That didn’t mean the message immediately sunk through to his coaches about what a talent they had on their hands. Hooker continued to play both sides of the ball, but at wide receiver in a high school offense, he didn’t always receive an overwhelming amount of chances to show what he could do with a ball in his hands.
That problem was ultimately remedied thanks to a spur of the moment decision in practice midway through his junior year.
“It took us a little bit – maybe we’re just not that smart,” Cowart said with a laugh. “There was a time where he was strictly a wide receiver for us on offense. We went to a wildcat formation in practice one day just by chance. When we direct snapped to him, he didn’t have to do anything else but use his ability. When we began to do that, he flourished. It was just one of those things where we saw it and knew we had something special.”
It didn’t take much longer for college coaches to catch on to the emerging prospect in western Pennsylvania. By the summer prior to his senior season, his offer sheet was full enough to steer him away from basketball and convince him that football offered him the best opportunity.
“You just have to look at it as what’s going to take care of your family and what’s going to help you have more success,” Hooker said. “For me, football kind of took that role because you can’t beat a full scholarship to The Ohio State University.”
Hooker’s talk about the value of an education isn’t just lip service, either. He’s a standout in the classroom with a high GPA, and he said that the Buckeyes stood out to him because the Buckeyes were willing to repeatedly engage with him on topics other than football.
When new co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash visited Hooker with Meyer in January, he followed that approach and quickly developed a bond with his future position player.
“I have a very strong relationship with Coach Ash,” Hooker said. “When we talked, he wasn’t just talking to me about football. He was asking me about my life and school and academic things.”
His intellectual curiosity should serve him well in Columbus, too. Those who watched him in high school have little doubt that he’ll be able to quickly pick up on the defensive concepts necessary to excel at safety. After all, he developed into the No. 258 overall player in the country in only two years on the gridiron.
“He’s like a sponge,” Cowart said. “He’s one of those guys who has the rare ability of picking things up right away. You can see guys with his athleticism try to cut corners because they can get away with it, but he’s always trying to do the right thing. He does his job, and he does it as such a high level. He doesn’t take any shortcuts. He tries to get better on a daily basis.”
It's that intellect combined with his athleticism that has Ohio State believing he'll be worth the wait.