June 9, 2013. An Ohio State instructional football camp has just concluded, and a sweat-soaked Terry McLaurin is inside Urban Meyer's office.
McLaurin caught every ball thrown his way. He won nearly every one-on-one rep. He even finished first in the "Smokehouse" sprint, solidifying him as the fastest player in attendance. McLaurin was the best receiver at the camp, and he expected to leave Meyer's office with an offer. Instead, he got a challenge.
"I'm the fastest kid at the camp, I win pretty much all the one-on-ones," McLaurin says. "I went into Coach Meyer's office and he was like 'You're as fast as we like our players, you're smart, you're a good kid, but we want to take this recruiting process a little slower. Your ball skills are not necessarily where we want them to be…I want you to go home, catch 200 footballs a day, and come back (to our next camp) in two weeks and we'll see where you are.'"
For McLaurin, that meant another long drive from Indianapolis to Columbus. It meant another day of proving himself against some of the best high school talent in the midwest. And with the next camp slated for June 21, it meant catching well over 2,000 footballs over the next 11 days.
"In that moment, I was discouraged. I did everything I was supposed to do, (my recruiting coach) thought I did well, the receivers coach thought I did well. I thought I was gonna get an offer," McLaurin says. "I had two choices. I had other offers as well, that I thought were really good offers. I could pursue those, or I could take this challenge that one of the best coaches in college football history gave me."
For the next two weeks, McLaurin enlisted anyone with a functional throwing arm to help him hit his goal. "My mom, my dad, my high school quarterback, friends, anybody who could throw me a football. I was catching 200 a day, maybe even more," McLaurin says. "My wrists were sore, just from catching them. (But) once I constantly started focusing more and more on the intricacies of catching the ball, I started seeing more improvement."
McLaurin, sore wrists and all, showed up on June 21 determined to win Meyer's approval. After 10 minutes of running routes and catching balls, the head coach had seen enough. "He offered me on the spot, and I committed the next day," McLaurin says.
Little did he know the true challenge was just beginning. There's a reason Ohio State football has had 37 players drafted by the NFL since 2014. The Buckeyes push players to their limits and demand excellence in every facet of preparation. For the ones up to the challenge, the results are often astonishing. McLaurin is a shining example.
As a fifth-year senior last season, McLaurin totaled 701 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns while averaging 20 yards per catch. McLaurin was a two-time team captain, and Meyer called him "the epitome" of the program's culture, saying there "should be a statue of him somewhere." His eagerness to do the dirty work once helped him win Player of the Game honors after a victory over Penn State despite him not gaining a single yard. More recently, he wowed scouts with his polished skills at the Senior Bowl, then blew them away with a 4.35 40-Yard Dash at the Combine.
"In the NFL world, it's not about what you do, it's about what you don't do. They'll find reasons to either draft somebody else (or) get a new guy or whatever, and that's the hardest reality of the business," says Brian Hartline, former Buckeye, NFL receiver and current Ohio State wide receivers coach. "To me, I create a list. And I say, 'What does Terry not do?' Well let's go down—he can't run. Well, he can run, so check. He can lift, check. He'll do anything you ask, check. He'll block his tail off, check. He'll create great plays on special teams, check. He'll run any route you ask him to, check. Over and over and over again, it's really hard for me to find anything Terry is not good at or won't do or chooses not to do."
But when McLaurin first arrived at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, he was the opposite of the big man on campus. He measured in at about 5-foot-4, 125 pounds. He'd dreamed of being an NFL player since he was 7 years old, but he knew that started with getting a college scholarship. And in the world of D1 recruiting, size matters.
"My size was a big thing I really worried about, because they put so much of an emphasis on that in sports in general," McLaurin says. "(But) I controlled what I could control. Running my routes, working hard in the weight room, just the things I had control over, that's what I wanted to emphasize…They can't measure your heart and your work ethic."
McLaurin toiled in relative anonymity for much of his freshman and sophomore years, sharpening his routes, building muscle and slowly growing taller. But it was his blinding speed that would soon attract the colossuses of college football. Mid-way through his junior season, McLaurin exploded onto the recruiting scene. In the state championship game that year, he had a 79-yard touchdown reception, a 41-yard touchdown run and a 66-yard punt return touchdown. Offers from programs like Purdue, Cincinnati, Missouri and Iowa rolled in. The summer before his senior year, McLaurin made that fateful visit to Columbus, received his challenge from Urban, and proved himself worthy of the Scarlet and Gray.
When McLaurin came in to OSU as a freshman, he was the reigning Mr. Football in Indiana and a kid who'd won four state championships during high school. He'd also grown to roughly 6-feet tall. He expected to play, and play early. When he soon learned he was going to redshirt and spend the year on the scout team, he was momentarily disappointed. But that perspective soon changed.
"It was discouraging at first because you want to play, but I also took it as an opportunity to grow as a player and as a person. It really changed my development. People can't appreciate how much scout team means for the 1s, offense and defense, and for yourself if you take it seriously," McLaurin says.
As a member of the scout team, he was lining up against future first-round picks like Eli Apple and Gareon Conley. McLaurin might not have played a single snap that year, but he played a behind-the-scenes role in the Buckeyes capturing the 2014 National Championship.
"Our No. 1 defensive players would tell me after the games that I gave them a better look than they saw in the game. So not only am I doing my part (for the team), but I'm getting better," McLaurin says. "People don't really appreciate (it), because you're not playing on Saturdays, but it's almost like an iceberg. People only get to see the top, which is the players on Saturdays, but they don't see all the hard work, the strength of the iceberg, is the scout team players and support staff."
McLaurin played sparingly over the next two seasons, appearing mostly on special teams, but his work ethic never went unnoticed. Sessions with Director of Strength and Conditioning Mickey Marotti slowly morphed his body from boy to man. Gladiatorial practices conducted at a breakneck speed built extreme conditioning and composure under pressure. Competing for playing time in a room that was a bonafide pro factory—McLaurin saw six of his fellow wide receivers drafted over his first three years at Ohio State—created a hunger to find any way to get on the field. Whether that meant becoming an un-blockable punt gunner or learning how to dominate as a blocker, he was willing to do it. When Hartline joined the Ohio State staff in early 2017, he remembers McLaurin as a guy with rare desire, but not much polish.
"Where he was two years ago, he'll tell you, really wasn't good enough at the time. He was just ready to do whatever it took to get where he is today," Hartline says.
Hartline quickly helped McLaurin establish two main goals—become a lethal route runner and build impeccable ball skills. Although McLaurin's speed and quickness often allowed him to create early separation in his patterns, a lack of technique prevented him from keeping that separation.
"The most important part of (route running) is your ability to separate out of a break and arrive at the catch point with as much separation as possible from the DB," Hartline says. "You can have a great release, and still not end up being open at the end of the route."
McLaurin says he was at Hartline's hip for the past two years, learning the "intricacies of running routes and manipulating DBs."
An improved McLaurin finished with 436 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2017 while also chipping in a ton of selfless work as a blocker and special teams ace. McLaurin momentarily pondered forgoing his fifth-year of eligibility to test the waters of the NFL, but decided another year of development could only help his chances. In retrospect, it may be the best decision he ever made. "I thought I was ready. But looking back on it, I wasn't nearly as ready as I (am) now," McLaurin says.
In addition to McLaurin, Hartline's receiver room also returned Parris Campbell and Johnnie Dixon—two other fifth-year seniors expected to be drafted this spring. The result was a culture that was both hyper-competitive and undyingly supportive. "They always wanna be the best one in the group, and if the group is really good, then they're getting even better," Hartline says. "It's really a group mentality."
McLaurin graduated early, allowing him to practically live in the football facility last spring. He helped innovate a new series of drills that trained the ability to win contested catches, amplifying the difficulty of his training:
"You want to create drills that make you uncomfortable," McLaurin says. "There's probably 20 different drills you can do just with that bag…I worked those drills probably 3-4 times a week along with catching footballs and running routes. That's all I did last year, and I feel like I probably made the biggest jump." A chart inside the Ohio State facility showed that McLaurin caught 3,500 balls last offseason, more than any other OSU receiver. Last season, he made an impact every single Saturday. McLaurin caught a touchdown in eight of 14 contests, but even when his boxscore looked somewhat barren, he found ways to help the team win.
He didn't score against Michigan State, but he did make a field-flipping play in his gunner role that changed the momentum of the game and led Meyer to claim he may "have taken over the title as the best (gunner) I've ever had." He didn't even catch a pass against Penn State, yet was named Player of the Game after throwing an incredible block that eliminated three Nittany Lions and sprung Dixon for a 42-yard touchdown:
Like hearing Terry McLaurin is tearing up Senior Bowl practice.
The former Ohio State WR is a good guy, a leader, and, as he said in his pinned tweet, gets more joy out of blocking than scoring.
Here, he takes out three defenders with one block. pic.twitter.com/sv7Kwlyl44
— Brent Yarina (@BTNBrentYarina) January 22, 2019
"A lot of guys (block) because they have to, but I want to. I go in there with the intent of getting my assignment done," McLaurin says. "I took pride in it. Stalk drills, circle drills—any way I can get that hand-to-hand combat with another defender, I took advantage of it." It's that type of mindset, combined with electric athleticism, that's helped McLaurin dominate the draft process so far.
With razor-sharp routes and game-breaking speed, he was the talk of the 2019 Senior Bowl. Pre-Combine training at XPE Sports in Fort Lauderdale, Florida helped him refine the raw athleticism he built at Ohio State and channel it into an explosive Combine performance which included a 4.35 40-Yard Dash and a 4.15 20-Yard Shuttle. NFL.com named McLaurin to their All-Combine team, and word is he crushed his private interviews.
McLaurin's career at Ohio State started when he accepted a challenge. Over his four-and-a-half years there, the challenges never ceased. Get stronger. Get smarter. Run crisper routes. Become a better blocker. Catch the ball more cleanly. Be a weapon on special teams. It's the willingness to answer those calls that've gotten McLaurin where he is today.
"When someone asks Terry to jump, he won't say 'Why?' He'll say, 'How high?'" Hartline says. "The best thing I can tell you about Terry is that you'd want to coach him. You'd want him in your room. That's the biggest compliment I think I can give you."
Photo Credit: Icon Sportswire via Getty Images