COLUMBUS, Ohio — If Ohio State fans are searching for a rooting interest in this weekend's NFL conference championship games, it shouldn't take long to find one.
Of the 35 former Buckeyes active in the NFL, four play on the Carolina Panthers, tying the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most Ohio State alums on one team in 2015.
What's more is that all four former Ohio State players on the Panthers, who will take on the Arizona Cardinals in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, serve as starters on the NFC's top-seeded team, making the Buckeyes presence in each Panthers game obvious. All you need to do is watch the starting lineup introductions at the start of each broadcast, and the transplants from Columbus now playing in Charlotte are impossible to miss.
Mark Pantoni @markpantoni
Buckeyes repping the 🅾 for the Panthers https://t.co/yN40KEjEOp2016-1-17 20:29:56
And while it may be fun to root for players you have a pre-existing relationship with—as is the case for Ohio State fans with Panthers safety Kurt Coleman, left guard Andrew Norwell and wide receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Corey "Philly" Brown—Carolina's success can go a long way toward benefitting the current Buckeyes program as well. After all, what better recruiting tool to have during the final two weekends of the NFL schedule than having a roster with your former players popping up during the conference championship games—and, potentially, the Super Bowl?
"That's a big part of recruiting now," Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said earlier this month of his program's ability to put players in the pros. "Of course we're using that."
Since taking over the Buckeyes in 2012, Meyer has had 14 players drafted, with 18 total Ohio State players he's coached during his tenure appearing on NFL rosters in 2015, per ESPN.com. Between Denver Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby—who forced a key fumble in his team's divisional-round win over the Pittsburgh Steelers last weekend—Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, Green Bay Packers center Corey Linsley and Houston Texans linebacker John Simon, Meyer's former Buckeyes have already possessed a strong presence during this year's postseason.
But unsurprisingly, it's the Panthers that Ohio State has chosen to promote most, via posts of encouragement on the athletic department's official Twitter account.
Ohio State Buckeyes @OhioStAthletics
.@Panthers Two states one team, huh? Mind if we jump in? #KeepPounding #GoBucks https://t.co/KfhZKBuJC02016-1-21 00:03:39
In the cases of Ginn and Coleman, both players were recruited by and played for former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel, and were drafted before Meyer ever arrived in Columbus. Brown and Norwell were also recruited by Tressel but spent the final two years of their college careers playing for Meyer, which perhaps serves as his greatest recruiting tool in all of this.
For Brown, it wasn't until the now-fifth-year Buckeyes head coach took over the program that his potential as an NFL-caliber receiver was realized. After catching just 22 total passes in the first two seasons of his college career, the Springfield, Pennsylvania, native emerged as one of Ohio State's most reliable playmakers during its run to a 24-2 record in its first two seasons under Meyer, leading the Buckeyes in both receptions and receiving yards in 2012 and 2013, with 123 combined catches and 1,440 yards to go along with 13 touchdown catches.
Despite his production, the 5'11", 185-pounder went undrafted in 2013, but he caught on quickly with the Panthers as a free agent. Earning a starting role in just his rookie year, Brown has become a consistent piece of the Carolina offense over the course of the past two seasons, hauling in 52 catches for 743 yards and six touchdowns.
The Panthers have also opted to feature his ability as a former running back as well, with Brown having attempted 14 rushes for 133 yards, including seven first downs. This is similar to how Meyer often featured the former 4-star prospect in his spread offense, with the Panthers perhaps benefitting from that having been put on film.
Similarly, Norwell's future in professional football was very much in doubt before Meyer came to Ohio State, with the Cincinnati product and former 4-star prospect bouncing across the Buckeyes offensive line in 2010 and 2011. Under Meyer, however, Norwell found a home at left guard, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2012 and 2013.
"[He was] way overweight and a guy who wasn’t committed to the cause," Meyer said of Norwell during a conference call in 2013. "He has turned out to be one of our leaders, an incredible young man and a guy I have tremendous respect for."
Norwell, like Brown, went undrafted—only 13 players classified as offensive guards were selected in the 2014 NFL draft—and found a home in Carolina. Midway through his rookie season, Norwell became the Panthers' starting left guard. In 2015, he became an even more valuable piece of the team's offensive line and is yet to have committed a penalty during both the 2015 season and postseason, per 247Sports, the only player at his position who can say that.
During running back Jonathan Stewart's 59-yard run in last weekend's 31-24 win over the Seattle Seahawks, the 6'6", 325-pounder threw three separate blocks in a remarkable effort that was lauded by head coach Ron Rivera.
"Norwell actually threw three blocks on that play," Rivera said, per the Panthers' official website. "He worked off of his double to the next level, bumped the linebacker and went into the [cornerback]."
Urban Meyer @OSUCoachMeyer
Congrats to Carolina Panther rookies @phillybrown10 and Andrew Norwell for their playoff win last night.2015-1-4 11:59:05
But it's not just Brown and Norwell, as well as Ginn and Coleman, that Meyer can use as recruiting tools on an NFL team that went 15-1 in the regular season and is one win away from a Super Bowl appearance. Meyer has also taken partial credit in the past for the development of Carolina quarterback, and most likely the NFL's MVP, Cam Newton, who he had successfully recruited to Florida in 2007.
While off-field issues ultimately led to Newton's departure from Gainesville before he ever became a starter for the Gators, Meyer has since referred to the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner and eventual No. 1 overall pick as a product of his system, a sales pitch he undoubtedly has used while recruiting prospective quarterbacks.
"The unique thing we can sell is our offense has had more first-rounders. [Along with] Florida State, we've had three first-rounders come popping out out of our offense," Meyer said during an episode of his call-in show in 2014. "We've had two Heisman Trophy winners—well I count Cam Newton because he was with us for a couple of years."
While Meyer can certainly take credit for the development of Alex Smith, the No. 1 pick of the 2005 NFL draft, and Tim Tebow, who was selected in the first round of the 2010 draft, his role in Newton's growth is somewhat of a stretch. It wasn't until Newton arrived at Auburn in 2011 that the former 4-star prospect reached his potential and appeared on the radar of NFL teams.
Nevertheless, sometimes in recruiting you have to stretch the truth. But it also helps to be able to have your track record speak for itself, which is why Meyer—and Ohio State fans—won't have any problems rooting for the team in black and blue this weekend.
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.