How Ohio State's Sam Hubbard Went from Freak Athlete to Emerging Star

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterOctober 12, 2016

Jan 1, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes defensive end Sam Hubbard (6) against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the 2016 Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Buckeyes defeated the Fighting Irish 44-28. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It's tough to tell where the legend of Ohio State defensive end Sam Hubbard begins. Everyone seems to have a different starting point.

For Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer, his introduction to the Cincinnati native came inside a high school gymnasium during a game of dodgeball in physical education class.

Nearly four years later, Hubbard is an emerging star on the Ohio State defense and the most prominent pass-rusher on a squad that entered Big Ten play ranked second in the country despite having lost 16 starters and 12 NFL draft picks from last year's team. The redshirt sophomore's burgeoning star status hasn't been unexpected, but the process has involved multiple position switches and even a change in career plans.

And if NFL mock drafts are to be believed, a fruitful future is already in the works.

For some, Hubbard first appeared on their radars during his breakout freshman season in 2015. For others, it was because of Meyer's weekly radio show. For the most hardcore Ohio State fan, the possibilities for Hubbard were planted during the recruiting process.

But four years before becoming a cornerstone for the Silver Bullets, Hubbard was just a kid in gym class.

    

Dodge, dip, dive, duck and dodge

Nov 14, 2015; Champaign, IL, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes defensive end Sam Hubbard (6) practices before the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Meyer first met Hubbard during a recruiting visit to Cincinnati's Archbishop Moeller in 2012.

He wasn't there to see any particular prospect. It was just a routine check-in with longtime Cincinnati high school coach and current Ohio State cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs.

But before Meyer left the traditional Southwest Ohio prep power, Moeller head coach John Rodenberg had something he had to show the then-first-year Buckeyes head coach. While Hubbard wasn't yet being recruited—to play football, at least—Rodenberg, who was also Moeller's PE teacher, thought his star safety could be something special if he could be convinced to stick it out on the gridiron.

"I was just asking about his guys," Meyer recalled. "[Hubbard] just happened to be in the gymnasium playing dodgeball. He was running around. Just a big athlete and a nice-looking kid."

Recalls Hubbard of his first encounter with Meyer: "We were all just playing like a normal day of class. He walked in with his leather jacket, and everybody was like, 'Oh my gosh, that's Urban Meyer.' I just didn't really think anything of it, then Coach Rodenberg called me over to say hello."

But he still says of that fateful dodgeball game: "I was going a little extra hard."

From there, Meyer and Coombs went to watch film of Hubbard and were wowed by the instincts of the 6'6", 225-pound safety who still possessed room to grow. With their linebacker corps depleted, the position figured to be emphasized in the Buckeyes' 2014 class, where Hubbard could serve as a project as his body continued to fill out.

There was just one problem: Hubbard was already committed to Notre Dame, where he planned to continue his career as an All-American lacrosse player. 

Whereas Meyer was used to recruiting against the likes of Alabama, Michigan and even the Fighting Irish on the football field, he now found himself trying to sell a prospect on playing a different sport.

But like most battles he's taken part in on the recruiting trail, Meyer came out on top.

"It wasn't really much of a decision," Hubbard said of his recruitment, "because it's coach Urban Meyer. Once I sat down in his office and he told me what his vision was and how he was going to do it, I wanted to be a part of it."

Months removed from leading Moeller to a Division I state title in football and two days into his junior season as an All-American midfielder, Hubbard made the rare redirection from Notre Dame lacrosse to Ohio State football. Opinions from recruiting services on his prospects as a college player varied—Scout.com touted him as a 5-star prospect, while Rivals.com had him as a 3-star and 247Sports split the difference with a 4-star ranking.

Adding another state title to his resume as he tallied 10 tackles, an interception, a fumble recovery and a blocked PAT in his high school football finale, Hubbard opted to skip his senior season of lacrosse. Even being unsure of what position he'd play, he figured spending his spring gaining weight would better serve his upcoming career in Columbus.

On national signing day, Ohio State announced Hubbard as a 6'6", 225-pound linebacker in its third-ranked 2014 class.

It was far from the final transition he'd endure in his football career.

     

Hot topic

Although he was rarely visible on Saturdays during his first fall on campus, Hubbard was a popular topic of conversation on Thursday afternoons.

Throughout the 2014 season, Meyer often brought up Hubbard during The Urban Meyer Call-In Show on the Ohio State Radio Network, with the coach repeatedly promising that the former high school lacrosse star would soon see the field.

"Let's play him," Meyer said of Hubbard during one September edition of the show, stating that if the Buckeyes redshirted him, he wouldn't be around for a fifth year anyways because he'd be "playing for money" in the NFL instead.

Nevertheless, Hubbard remained on the sideline throughout the Buckeyes' run to the College Football Playoff National Championship.

Based on all indications from his coaches, he was ready to play. So why did his redshirt remain intact?

For one, the Ohio State staff couldn't settle on a position for him.

Although the original plan was for him to play linebacker, Hubbard spent the first week of his college career as a part of a depleted depth chart at tight end. But once injured starter Jeff Heuerman was deemed full strength and Marcus Baugh returned from suspension, Hubbard—his services never needed in an actual game—was sent back to the defensive side of the ball, although even then it remained unclear which position he'd play.

"He keeps growing and growing," Meyer said at the time.

By the fifth week of his freshman season, the Ohio State staff had a third plan for Hubbard: defensive end. The Buckeyes were stockpiled at the position, and Hubbard had never played on the line before, but the move seemed like a natural one for the player who was then approaching 240 pounds.

Sep 7, 2015; Blacksburg, VA, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes defensive end Sam Hubbard (6) lines up against the Virginia Tech Hokies at Lane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As Hubbard entered defensive line coach Larry Johnson's position room, he mostly stayed in the back, well aware that playing time on a line that already possessed ends such as Joey Bosa, Steve Miller, Rashad Frazier and Tyquan Lewis would be hard to come by.

"I almost lost faith a few times," Hubbard said of the constant position switches in his freshman season.

In practice, however, his potential was apparent.

"The main thing about Sam is he always worked hard," Lewis said. "He was always attention-detailed. We could tell him something, and he could do it to the best of his abilities. He was just very coachable. That's where he excelled."

Meyer saw it, too, yet against his better judgment, Hubbard remained on the sideline.

It wouldn't take long for Meyer to realize his gut instinct was correct. Hubbard's college career likely wouldn't last another four years.

       

Rushmen, rushmen, rushmen

Unlike the 2016 season when Meyer was forced to rewrite his depth chart following a mass exodus of talent to the NFL draft, open starting spots in the Buckeyes' 2015 lineup were few and far between.

That rang especially true at defensive end, where Bosa and Lewis returned as cornerstones of the defending national champion's defense.

But with Bosa suspended for the Buckeyes' season-opening battle with Virginia Tech, an opportunity existed for Hubbard to finally get on the field—even if only for a single game. Edging out classmate Jalyn Holmes in fall camp for the one-game audition, Hubbard took the field on Labor Day as a starter in the first game of his college career in a nationally televised prime-time matchup.

He didn't disappoint, either.

Finally feeling like a defensive end for the first time since he made the switch less than a year prior, the 265-pound Hubbard was a constant presence in the Hokies backfield, tallying four tackles (1.5 for loss) and a sack in Ohio State's 42-24 victory.

Bosa returned to action a week later, but Hubbard's playing time barely dwindled. Faced with the enviable problem of having too many pass-rushers at his disposal, Johnson employed a "rushmen" package, which saw Bosa slide in at defensive tackle next to Adolphus Washington, allowing space for Hubbard and Lewis to come off the edges.

"We knew nothing about it [in the preseason]," Washington said of the sub-package. "I think it was the way Sam played against Virginia Tech. ... I think that had a big part to do with it."

Sep 3, 2016; Columbus, OH, USA;  Ohio State Buckeyes defensive end Sam Hubbard (6) rushes the quarterback during the first half against the Bowling Green Falcons at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State won the game 77-10. Mandatory Credit: Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Spor
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

The unexpected playing time spurred a strong start to Hubbard's career as a defensive lineman. Appearing in all 13 of Ohio State's games during its unsuccessful national title defense, the redshirt freshman tallied the second-most sacks on the Buckeyes roster with 6.5—1.5 more than his mentor, Bosa, who would go on to become the No. 3 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft.

"I don't think I actually felt like a defensive end until I got in the game and played against Virginia Tech," Hubbard said. "I was just always wondering what an actual game as a defensive end would be like. I'd only seen practice reps. After I saw game reps, I realized I did belong."

With Hubbard serving as a full-time starter and the successor to Bosa's spot on the Buckeyes defensive line, there's even less doubting he belongs. Five games into his sophomore season, Hubbard has totaled 12 tackles, 2.5 of which have come for a loss, 1.5 sacks, two QB hurries and one pass breakup, per CFBStats.com.

The numbers might not be jumping off the charts just yet, but one look at the game film will show Hubbard is one of the primary reasons why Ohio State's defense currently ranks fourth in the country. With a primetime showdown vs. Wisconsin this Saturday, Hubbard will have a chance in the spotlight to see his star rise even further. 

With the way he's grown in such a short time and the versatility he possesses, an NFL future also seems like a given. In an early 2018 mock draft on WalterFootball.com, Hubbard is slotted as the No. 17 overall pick.

Already three years removed from his high school career at the end of this season, he may not have to wait that long to make the jump. Given his innate athleticism and the versatility he possesses when it comes to his position, Hubbard could find himself a prized prospect in the 2017 NFL draft, where he could fit seamlessly into any NFL team's defensive system.

For what's just the latest project to pan out in the pro football factory Meyer has formed in Columbus, it's tough to tell where the story of Hubbard's college career starts.

It's becoming less difficult, however, to figure out where it will end.

       

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Recruiting and class ratings courtesy of Scout.com.

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