On the same day freshman Jashon Cornell began spring semester classes at Ohio State, he sat in the student union as the Buckeyes — the team for which he committed to play football — pounded Oregon 42-20 to win the national championship.
Cornell, who arrived on campus only three days earlier, watched the game on TV with another football early enrollee. The victory affirmed Ohio State as a program capable of making championship dreams a reality for the former Cretin-Derham Hall defensive end once ranked as the nation’s No. 1 recruit.
“I have the opportunity to play if I grind it out and learn lessons every day,” said Cornell, who graduated high school in December, six months before his senior peers. “I want to play at the high level they need me to.”
Cornell heads the Star Tribune’s 17th annual Super Preps class, a collection of the state’s premier Division I college football prospects. His size (6-4, 255 pounds) and explosiveness rocketed him to prominence as ESPN’s No. 1 college football recruit as a junior heading into the fall of 2013.
He drew more than 30 college scholarship offers, even as he struggled for two seasons with playing weight and focus, national analysts and one of his high school coaches said. Though he dropped to No. 33 overall and seventh at his position in the latest ESPN rankings released this month, Cornell remains the state’s top recruit, according to ESPN and Rivals.com.
He committed to the Buckeyes last July and, despite a lackluster senior season, drew positive reviews at a recent all-star game of national prep stars.
“Ohio State never flinched’’ in its commitment, said Cretin-Derham Hall coach Mike Scanlan, who believes expectations for his standout player were set too high.
Tom Luginbill, national recruiting director at ESPN for high school football, said Cornell’s class featured “the best blend of defensive ends and tackles in probably the past eight or nine recruiting classes. In fairness, it’s a crowded room, and I don’t know if he performed to the same level.”
Cornell, who plans to pursue a business administration degree, already has been schooled on the business side of major college football.
“It’s been bittersweet,” Cornell said. “I got opportunities to meet people and coaches on this journey that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. But you also deal with people saying, ‘You don’t deserve it,’ or, ‘You’re not good enough.’ You learn a ranking means nothing, because everybody out there has talent and you have to showcase it in the right way and at the right time.”
Rankings rise and fall
The first of the scholarship offers arrived after Cornell’s strong sophomore season at Cretin-Derham Hall, which Luginbill called “his most productive. He also had success at national camps the next summer, leading to ESPN’s No. 1 ranking in August 2013.
Further showcasing Cornell a month later, the sports media giant broadcast a Minnesota high school football game — Cornell’s Raiders against Stillwater — for the first time.
Scanlan has seen previous Raiders standouts Joe Mauer and Seantrel Henderson labeled as the nation’s top recruit and knows the price of fame.
“Whoever named Jashon the No. 1 recruit did him a disservice,” Scanlan said. “It set him up for people to say, ‘I knew he wasn’t that good.’ ”
The attention heightened Cornell’s profile while simultaneously affecting his play the next two seasons. He struggled with the notoriety as a junior and his focus sputtered as a senior looking ahead to major college football, said Michael Brewer, who works in the school’s guidance and counseling office, coaches the freshman football team and worked closely with Cornell throughout the recruiting process.
Cornell also struggled to find an ideal playing weight, which fluctuated between 230 and 270 pounds during his junior and senior seasons. He languished at times in what Josh Helmholdt, Midwest recruiting analyst for Rivals.com and Yahoo Sports, called the “Goldilocks zone.” When Cornell played at a lighter weight he gave up ground at the point of attack, Helmholdt said. When he played at a heavier weight, he lost explosiveness.
“With the Minnesota weather I wasn’t able to get out and run as much,” Cornell said of his weight challenges. “I just lifted and ate all winter. I’ve started running more, working on my abs and doing more push-ups and pullups.”
Scanlan promoted Jake Lacina as the Cretin-Derham Hall player most deserving of individual accolades after last season but said Cornell “always was a key player for us.”
Cornell admitted his senior year “could have been better. It was hard dealing with double- and triple-teams and teams preparing just for you. But I also took pride in that because it gave my teammates opportunities to make plays.”
Though Cornell’s “progression was not to the level we expected, he still has a high ceiling,” Helmholdt said.
Playing to his potential
Cornell resumed his impact-player form at the Under Armour All-America Game played Jan. 2 in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“That was an important showcase for me,” Cornell said. “I was more explosive and people could see that I’m still that type of player.”
Coaches moved Cornell inside to play defensive tackle, and he impressed.
“He looked more like he did as a sophomore,” Luginbill said.
“That experience was a real positive,” Brewer said. “He can raise his game to the level of those around him, and I think those coaches saw him excel.”
Brewer said Cornell’s best chance to be dominant includes moving to defensive tackle and transforming his body.
“He has a big trunk, so he can put on weight,” Brewer said. “I could see him around 300 pounds by his sophomore year and becoming devastating inside.”
Ohio State’s coaching staff, Brewer said, “may not be getting the outside push rusher they thought they were getting” but added that if Cornell fully realized his potential as a tackle, he could become a player akin to Nick Fairley, the Lombardi Award recipient at Auburn as the nation’s top lineman who was drafted in the first round by the Detroit Lions.
That’s good company. But drawing wisdom from the perils of his former No. 1 ranking, Cornell is eschewing wishes for work.
He attends Buckeyes team meetings by 7 a.m. An hour later he arrives at the fieldhouse for 30 minute of warmups. Then he hits the weight room for an hour. An ice bath and shower follow, and finally, breakfast.
Then it’s back to the dorm to rest or tackle homework, followed by study table and work with tutors. He enrolled in six classes worth 17 credits, a hefty load even for an honor-roll student in high school who scored a 27 the first time he took the ACT.
“There’s a fast pace to everything,” Cornell said. “The message we get from our coaches is, ‘Do everything fast and always finish what you start.’ ”
The message further drilled home in drills where players are encouraged to carry their runs five yards past the finish line.
“It’s everything I hoped it would be,” Cornell said of the Ohio State environment. “Everything we’re doing is going to make me a better football player.”