Sam Hubbard's recruitment to Ohio State began at a dodgeball game.
In 2012, Urban Meyer stopped by Archbishop Moeller High School (Cincinnati, Ohio) to catch up with the coaching staff. He wasn't there to meet any particular prospect, but Moeller has a long tradition as a pipeline of D1 talent, and Meyer knows the importance of maintaining such relationships.
On that trip, the Ohio State head football coach found himself in the school's gymnasium during a PE class. The kids were playing dodgeball, and a Moeller coach pointed out Hubbard. At 6-foot-5, he was hard to miss, but Hubbard was surprisingly nimble on the court. The coach explained to Meyer that Hubbard was a stud lacrosse player, but believed he could become a great football player in due time.
Today, Hubbard is an All-Big Ten defensive end who's projected as a potential first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. His path to the pros was anything but typical, but from the moment he laid eyes on him, Meyer knew he had talent—it was just a matter of unlocking his full football potential. With a selfless attitude and thousands of hours of hard work, Hubbard transformed himself from a lanky lacrosse player into a terrorizing defensive end.
Hubbard first picked up a lacrosse stick after having watched his older brother, Jake, participate in the sport. The speed and physicality of the game immediately caught his attention. "I thought it was a fast-paced, physical game with a lot going on," Hubbard told STACK. "It's kinda like hockey and soccer, combined."
Hubbard soon found he was a natural at the sport. He wasn't just good—he was a phenom. He sliced through defenders to create space for howitzer-like shots, and dominated attacking ballcarriers with his physicality.
During the summer before his freshman year at Moeller, he attended an elite lacrosse camp in Maryland. His performance earned him a spot in the camp's all-star game, where he put on a show in front of a legion of Division-I coaches. Soon enough, offers rolled in from all the best programs—Johns Hopkins, Duke, North Carolina, Ohio State, Notre Dame, you name it. By that time, Jake was enjoying a lacrosse career of his own at Notre Dame. After several visits to South Bend, Sam committed to Notre Dame for lacrosse in February of his freshman year.
Despite the commitment, Hubbard stuck with football, as well. He loved the sport for many of the same reasons he adored lacrosse—it was fast and it was an acceptable outlet for aggression. As a junior safety, Hubbard helped the Crusaders win a football state title in 2012. Yes—he played safety. Back then Hubbard wasn't quite the size he is now, but he was in the midst of a growth spurt at the time.
In lacrosse, Hubbard earned All-America honors as a midfielder during his junior season. But by that time, Urban Meyer had already offered him a scholarship for football. Meyer wasn't quite sure what position he'd play, but he was enamored with the combination of size and athleticism. It was a tough decision, but the allure of a football career at OSU—something every boy in the state grows up dreaming of—proved too strong for Hubbard to ignore.
Hubbard entered his senior year at Moeller committed to play football at Ohio State. By that time, he had sprouted to 6-foot-5, making him one of the most intimidating free safeties you'll ever see. He totaled 110 tackles with 5 interceptions en-route to first-team all-state honors, helping Moeller capture their second state title in as many years. That winter, Hubbard made the tough decision to forgo his senior season of lacrosse. Ohio State had told him he'd likely come in as a linebacker, and he knew he'd have to put on some serious mass to prepare for that role.
"I actually stopped playing lacrosse my senior year and spent that whole winter and spring before I reported to college in the weight room, gaining 25-30 pounds. I was a little behind (in the weight room) because I was always playing a different sport, but it worked out in the end because I was developed athletically and had plenty of time to get stronger," Hubbard says.
Hubbard arrived at Ohio State with much fanfare. Buckeye fans had heard Meyer gush about the incoming freshman on signing day. "I'm so excited about him," Meyer told CBS Sports. "It became a no brainer to us…there is no doubt he'll play for us next year unless something happens."
Those are strong words from one of the most accomplished college football coaches in history, and they turned out to be a bit premature. Hubbard's athleticism was evident from the first day he laced up his cleats in Columbus, but the coaching staff didn't quite know how best to utilize him. During fall camp, he bounced between two positions he had zero prior experience in—linebacker and tight end. "Every day, I'd come in, and some days I'd have an offensive jersey, and some days I'd have a defensive jersey. I was kinda up in the air," Hubbard says.
It wasn't until Hubbard participated in one-on-ones against the offensive line that his role became crystal clear. "One day, I went down to the O-line/D-line pass rush and they told me to get a rep. I went down there and won three in a row, not knowing what I was doing. (I was) just going hard and somehow—I don't even remember what moves I did—but I won the first three reps. Then our defensive line coach, coach Johnson, asked me if I wanted to come to the defensive line room. I said yes, and I never looked back," Hubbard says.
Many of the traits that made him such a natural at defensive end—the ability to lower his center of gravity and maintain body control through contact, the coordination needed to deliver precise strikes in hand combat—were originally built via lacrosse. "I really credit the development of my hand-eye coordination, my footwork, to being a two-sport athlete and playing lacrosse," Hubbard says. "The way the two sports tie together (ended up being) a really great fit for me."
While Meyer believed Hubbard could play at defensive end during his true freshman season (as he mentioned several times on his radio show, even hinting he'd be in the NFL before he could exhaust his college eligibility), he was still incredibly raw—and about 40 pounds lighter than your typical end. The decision was eventually made that Hubbard would redshirt his freshman season. With his position finally set in stone, Hubbard attacked the transition to defensive end with fervor.
"I came in and redshirted and had to gain 40 pounds my freshman year of college. That took everything from being in the weight room first and last to being in the meal room first and last. I want to be the hardest working guy on any team," Hubbard says.
He credits that fierce work ethic to his parents, Jim and Amy. "My mom is a nurse, my dad's a lawyer. They both work incredibly hard," Hubbard says. "They instilled in me that the only path to success is working hard."
While Hubbard didn't play as a true freshman, he got an education on the scout team. Ohio State's offense was absolutely loaded that year, as they went on to win the national championship. "I was going against Taylor Decker, (who was a future) first-round left tackle. Trying to tackle guys like (Ezekiel Elliott.) Get after guys like Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett, Braxton Miller. It didn't take a lot to get adjusted to playing other opponents after going against them, because that the was the best I was going to face. It taught me a lot," Hubbard says.
Hubbard was a significant contributor during his redshirt freshman season, but it was his redshirt sophomore season when he felt like he truly came into his own. "My sophomore year, I really stood up and was a leader. I was able to be more of a cornerstone for our defense and consistently do my job and be a reliable guy to make a big play," Hubbard says.
He was an All-Big Ten honorable mention that season as well as a first-team Academic All-American. Hubbard carried that momentum into last offseason, where he was frequently relied upon to bring up the energy of the team. "This past offseason, our strength coach would pair me with a guy in the weight room who was struggling or not going hard or just needed an extra push. I'd always get with those guys and try to bring the whole team up another level," Hubbard says.
He also worked to chisel his body composition into one more befitting an NFL player. He'd put on 70 pounds in under two years between his senior year of high school and his true freshman season, and putting on that much weight so quickly without adding significant body fat is nearly impossible. His mass-gaining methods included downing two peanut butter & jelly sandwiches before bed every night. "I gained a lot of weight really quickly, I was 265 my freshman year. But over the years, I've been working on dieting and weightlifting to turn that into a better, stronger 265. I have a picture with how I look now and how I looked my freshman year—it's pretty amazing what hard work can do," Hubbard says.
Last season, Hubbard was a handful for anyone unfortunate enough to line up across from him. His play hit another gear during the Buckeyes' final seven games, including their Rose Bowl victory over USC. During that span, Hubbard racked up 5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. According to Pro Football Focus, he finished the season with an impressive 48 total quarterback pressures. Hubbard earned second-team All-Big Ten honors and was selected to the AP's "All Bowl" team. He then made a decision which proved Meyer prophetic, forgoing his final year of eligibility and declaring for the 2018 NFL Draft.
To help him prepare for the draft process, Hubbard turned to EXOS in Carlsbad, California. STACK caught up with Hubbard on location and found a young man still wrapping his head around the fact he would soon be on an NFL team. "It's an odd transition. You're going from being a student-athlete to being a professional. And these guys show you how to be a professional athlete," Hubbard said. "The opportunity to play in the NFL—it's something I've always dreamed of."
Hubbard spent much of his time at EXOS ahead of the Combine honing his 3-Cone Drill. He hadn't practiced the drill much during college, but it's an extremely important event for pass rushers. The staff at EXOS taught him how to utilize his natural athleticism during the drill, and it resulted in some great times.
"It's a very important drill for pass rushers to show flexibility and the ability to bend corners," Hubbard says. "(I've been able to improve my time by) just doing what I naturally do on the field, allowing my body to bend like you do when you're pass rushing. (You're) just doing it over cones instead. (It's really about) just letting it go and getting comfortable with it and acting like you're on the football field and not at a Combine."
Hubbard aced the Combine thanks in part to a phenomenal showing in the 3-Cone Drill. His time of 6.84 was the best result among all defensive linemen and edge defenders. His 11.61 in the 60-Yard Shuttle was another eye-popping result, and his performance in the field drills was sublime. Now, a path to the pros that included switching sports, changing positions from safety to defensive end, and totally transforming his body is near its conclusion. While the journey may have been far from straightforward, his work ethic remained constant.
"I take pride in how far I've come and what I've been able to accomplish," Hubbard says. "Everything comes down to how much you work and how bad you want something. If you put all the distraction aside and do the work, you're going to be successful."
Photo Credit: Icon Sportswire/Getty Images