By David Fong
Regional Sports Content Director
COVINGTON — Right about now, A.J. Ouellette kind of feels like the kid who rented a tuxedo, procured a limousine’s services and bought a beautiful corsage for his date — only to get stood up on prom night.
With National Signing Day just four days away, the Covington High School senior figured all he’d be waiting to do right now is apply pen to paper and sign a scholarship offer to play football at the Division I college of choice. All Ouellette has done the past two years is set every Buccaneer rushing and scoring record, rush for nearly 5,000 yards (including 2,535 this season) despite sitting out the second half of all of Covington’s blowout victories, rush for 359 yards in one game, score six touchdowns in one game, earn first-team All-Ohio honors, lead the Buccaneers to a 20-0 regular season record and a pair of playoff appearances.
And yet, with National Signing Day fast approaching, Ouellette finds himself left out in a cold of polar vortex-like proportions.
“I figured I’d already have something by now,” Ouellette said. “My junior year, I figured I’d actually have something figured out during my (senior) season.”
Forget about getting Division I scholarship offers — right now, Ouellette can’t even get coaches to return his phone calls.
• ‘I’m frustrated’
Covington coach Dave Miller has seen more than his fair share of talented high school football players. As a former player and assistant coach at area high school powerhouse Centerville, Miller had the chance to work with such notable former Elks as Will Johnson, who played at West Virginia University and now plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers; David Fleming, who played at Youngstown State and James Cravens, who played at Ball State under current University of Michigan coach Brady Hoke.
Miller puts Ouellette right there with — if not ahead of — all of them.
“I’m frustrated,” Miller said. “I’ve coached at the Division I (high school) level — and in 24 years, he’s the best kid I’ve ever coached. I can’t believe he doesn’t have a Division I offer yet. Whoever gets this kid is the ultimate lottery winner.”
Both Miller and Ouellette agree that if they were given a concrete reason why no schools were willing to take a chance on the record-setting halfback, they could live with that. So far, however, no schools have come forth with any reasons why they aren’t interested.
In fact, it’s now reached a point where schools are barely even speaking to the player or coach at all.
“He’s got nothing right now. I’m really irritated,” Miller said. “I can’t even get people to answer my questions — I can’t get coaches to even return my calls. I don’t know what the deal is. Honestly, it’s to the point now where I’m not even sure I’ll want to talk to coaches if they come around in the future. I wouldn’t do that because I wouldn’t want to hurt any kids in the future, but if they ask me, ‘Do you have anyone we should be looking at?’ it’s going to be hard for me not to say, ‘We did have a kid you should have been looking at — where were you then?’ I’m really mad about it.”
Ouellette himself can only guess as to what might be scaring off college coaches. He figures some schools may be put off by his size — although he’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds in the Covington program, and, by looking at his chiseled frame, it appears to be all muscle — or the level of competition Covington sees playing in Ohio’s smallest division for high school football (Division VII).
“I’ve not really been given any reasons,” he said. “I had Akron tell me that they hadn’t heard about me soon enough. I really don’t know why I haven’t had any offers — nobody has really told me anything. I guess maybe it’s a combination of my size and the level of competition, but nobody has really told me.”
Miller finds both of those excuses to be just that — and isn’t buying either one of them. He’s quick to point to the fact that when Covington took on eventual state champion Marion Local in the Division VII regional semifinals last fall, Ouellette rushed for 226 yards as the Buccaneers fell just short in a 35-28 loss that wasn’t decided until the game’s final minutes. After defeating Covington by a touchdown, the Flyers went on to defeat their next three opponents by a combined score of 118-6 en route to a state championship.
“When we played Marion Local, he put up 230 yards on them — and I’m sorry, but Marion Local could play with any team in the state,” Miller said. “He rushed for 2,500 yards this season — and what a lot of people don’t realize is how many games we had to sit him in the second half because we were up by so much. We had to take him out of the Arcanum game, otherwise we score 150 points. I think the most carries he ever had in one game was 27. If we go to the state championship — which I really think we would have done if we had beat Marion Local — he’s up around 3,000 yards and people are talking about him for Mr. Football.
“He runs a legit 4.4 40 (yard dash) — his quickness if off the charts. He was bench pressing 425 pounds in the eighth week of the season, which is pretty much unheard of. He’s 5-foot-10, 190-pounds. He’s a kid who never takes a day off. He’s the hardest-working kid I’ve ever been around. How could schools not be looking at him?”
It’s not that Covington — despite its small size and level of competition — hasn’t produced Division I college football players before. In the 1970s, the Vogler twins, Tim and Terry, played for the legendary Woody Hayes at Ohio State. Tim would go on to spend 10 years in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills. Earlier this century, Matt Weikert was a starting linebacker at Ohio University.
More recently, there was a running back from Miami County who went through his own recruiting fiasco.
• ‘Everything happens for a reason’
If there’s person who can understand what Ouellette is going through right now, it’s former Troy High School running back Ryan Brewer.
As a senior at Troy in 1998, Brewer rushed for 2,856 yards in just 10 games — a state record at the time — and still ranks in the top 10 in most Ohio High School Athletic Association rushing and scoring categories. He was named Mr. Football Ohio for 1998. Given the fact both players are similar in size and stature (Brewer was 5-foot-10, 210-pounds as a senior at Troy) and both played in front of many of the same fans in Miami County — the comparisons are inevitable.
“I’ve heard of him,” Ouellette said. “I know a lot of people have compared me to him.”
Like Ouellette, Brewer also struggled to gain the attention of Division I college coaches. While he did find himself in a better situation than the one in which Ouellette currently finds himself — he didn’t receive any firm Division I scholarship offers until January of his senior year, long after more than a dozen Ohio running backs with far-less gaudy statistics had offers — he can certainly sympathize.
Despite being named the best football player in Ohio, Brewer never was offered a scholarship by The Ohio State University — which instead offered running backs Kelton Lindsay of Lebanon, Richard Hall of Cincinnati Wyoming and Jesse Kline of Upper Arlington, none of whom finished their playing careers for the Buckeyes — or any other Midwest powers.
Brewer would eventually get the last laugh, however, accepting a scholarship offer from the University of South Carolina and, in the 2001 Outback Bowl, earning bowl MVP honors after scoring three touchdowns and rushing for 110 yards against the Buckeyes … the same school that had spurned him two years prior.
When asked to watch a highlight tape of Ouellette on YouTube, Brewer — who said he has been asked dozens of times to evaluate running backs, but also said he is hesitant to draw comparisons between himself and anyone else — was impressed with what he saw.
“It looks like he’s got good vision,” Brewer said. “He looks like a fairly tough runner. He breaks tackles. From what I’ve seen, he’s got good breakaway speed. He looks like he runs with strength and has good vision on his cuts.”
Like Ouellette, Brewer said he was never given any good reasons why the big-time Division I schools were initially avoiding him.
“There was a lot of beating around the bush with me,” he said. “No one ever really told me why they weren’t looking at me. I had heard that maybe they thought I was too slow or too short, but nobody ever came right out and told me why they weren’t offering.”
While Brewer has never met Ouellette, his heart goes out to him … and he does have some advice for him, no matter where Ouellette decides to play football.
“The big thing he needs to remember is that everything happens for a reason,” Brewer said. “He’s got to follow his heart. It sounds crazy, but the first decision you make is usually the right one. He’s got to feel comfortable wherever he goes. He’s got to be happy with his decision.
“Wherever he decides to go, he can’t have any battles within. He’s got to say, ‘My game is good enough and I can make it at the next level.’ College football is hard enough, mentally. If you go in with any doubts, you are going to be in trouble. He’s got to have that confidence in himself that he is going to make it. He has to make a decision — and I would think he’s got to make it soon — and feel good about it.”
• ‘Whoever gets him is getting a special player’
While Brewer initially struggled to pick up a Division I offer, he had his pick of smaller colleges until the big schools finally started coming around.
Ouellette, on the other hand, is struggling even to find a landing spot at a smaller school. Only recently have Division II programs Urbana and Ashland made an offer. While Ouellette is appreciative and has made visits to both schools, he still feels in his heart he’s a Division I college football player — and is willing to walk on at a big school and try to earn a scholarship if he has to.
Don’t be surprised if signing day comes and goes Wednesday and Ouellette decides to spurn the offers from the smaller schools and cast his lot as a walk on at a Division I program. Currently, he’s looking at Akron and Ball State.
And despite initially being miffed at the lack of attention, he’s since made peace with that.
“I want to go Division I,” Ouellette said. “I figure if I have to walk on, I can make the team anyway. I was a little mad at first — I was definitely mad after the season when nothing happened and nothing came. I’ve kind of accepted it now, I guess. I’ll probably pick a school and walk on. I think I’ll be able to get a scholarship after I walk on, at least by my last two years.”
While Ouellette is OK with the current state of affairs, most folks around the insular, football-mad town of Covington are not. Many have tried to take up the fight for Covington’s favorite son, frequently calling schools and asking how they could possibly be missing out on such an un-mined recruiting gem.
“I know of one guy who has called Ohio State at least 50 times — it’s hard for him to keep his language in check when he talks to me,” Ouellette said. “I know a lot of people are upset.”
Perhaps none more so than Miller.
“Whoever gets him is getting a special player,” he said. “I just don’t understand how so many schools can be missing out on this kid.”
Contact David Fong at (937) 440-5228 or firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong.