The good feelings surrounding Ohio State football in January continued when Will Howard, Seth McLaughlin, Caleb Downs, Quinshon Judkins and Will Kacmarek met with the media for the first time.
Columbus, OH – Will Howard walked confidently Tuesday morning toward the table where he would sit and answer reporters’ questions for the first time as an Ohio State Buckeye.
“How you guys doing,” he said as navigated his way through tripods, cameras, cords and guys standing around waiting to push the record button on their phones and digital recorders.
“How are you doing?” someone asked.
“Glad to be a Buckeye, man,” Howard said with a smile just before sitting down to the microphone in a gray Ohio State T-shirt.
Howard, the transfer quarterback from Kansas State, talked about why he chose Ohio State along with fellow transfers, center Seth McLaughlin and safety Caleb Downs from Alabama, running back Quinshon Judkins from Mississippi and tight end Will Kacmarek from Ohio University.
The expected positivity came as an exclamation point on what has been the most positive of Januarys a program can have, especially coming off end-of-season disappointments that caused many to question the direction of the program.
“There’s a lot of reasons why, but when I got to the end it was more why not,” said Howard, who has one year of eligibility left and is the presumed starter heading into spring practice. “I just felt like this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up on.”
Howard based his decision on what he could learn and gain from a year with head coach Ryan Day. Then he got even better news when Bill O’Brien was hired as offensive coordinator. O’Brien’s history as a head coach and coordinator in the NFL and as a college head coach cemented Howard’s decision as the right one. O’Brien helped quarterback Bryce Young win the Heisman Trophy in 2021.
“That fires me up,” Howard said. “He seems very relatable, someone I can get along with really well. He’s a players’ coach, he wants to do what we want to do and cater to our strengths, and that’s big time.”
Howard said his decision was between Ohio State and the NFL, where he was projected as a fourth-round draft pick. Other schools that recruited him don’t play as full-blown of a pro-style offense as the Buckeyes. Howard, whose running ability is a strength, wants to improve as a pocket passer and develop the his play-action skills under Day and O’Brien.
“A lot of the schools I was looking at, these air-raid type schools, they’ve got great offenses and I could put up a lot of numbers, but I don’t know how much that would develop me for the NFL,” he said. “All the things pointed to Ohio State.”
While Ohio State needed a veteran quarterback like Howard, who was 12-5 as a starter at Kansas State, the need is also great on an offensive line that underperformed in 2023. McLaughlin, who also has one year of college left, played center for Alabama and earned two degrees there. He could play that position or right guard for the Buckeyes.
“Ohio State’s one of the greatest programs in college football,” he said “And coming from a place like Alabama, I thought I wanted to go to another similar place that is always competing to win championships and has great coaching and great development.”
O’Brien was on Alabama’s staff for two years during McLaughlin’s time with the Crimson Tide.
“He’s really good leader of men, he’s very knowledgeable in the game, he’s coached some of the best players to ever play the game,” McLaughlin said. “When you walk into a place like this, he’s going to be having great players to coach. We’re going to have a lot of success with him.”
O’Brien’s offense will rely heavily on the passing game, but he also has two star running backs to rely on, assuming the line becomes consistent at run blocking. In addition to TreVeyon Henderson, he now has Judkins, who was second in rushing in the SEC last season. The curious part of Judkins’ decision is why would a lead running back transfer to a team that already has a lead running back?
“My answer would be why not Ohio State,” Judkins said. “A place with great culture, the best coaches, the best players, the best fan base that’s very passionate about their team … that was my reasoning.”
Kacmarek, a redshirt junior with two more years of eligibility, took a different route to Ohio State than the guys from the SEC and Big 12. In two years as a starter at Ohio, he caught 42 passes for 507 yards and two touchdowns.
“Ever since I’ve been young, it’s my dream to play at the highest level,” Kacmarek said. “It’s been a long process. I’m a person who likes to come every day and play my hardest. So just building day by day through OU led me to this opportunity.”
The number of defensive stars who eschewed the NFL for another season as a Buckeye made for big news. Then Downs decided to leave Alabama after his “heart dropped” the day Nick Saban retired. Downs led the Tide in tackles and won awards as the SEC and national freshman of the year.
Ohio State was a finalist during Downs’ high school recruitment. After seeing the defense’s progress in two years under coordinator Jim Knowles, Downs chose the Buckeyes over his home state of Georgia and will take over for Josh Proctor alongside fellow safeties Lathan Ransom and Sonny Styles.
“I love the program here, I love Coach (Tim) Walton and what the people had to say around here,” Downs said. “I believe in Coach Day, and I believe in this team.”
And now, after a January that felt more like Christmas morning, fans, and likely AP poll voters when the time comes, believe in Ohio State again.