The decision to leave Ohio State and enter the NCAA transfer portal was so difficult for Jaelen Gill because the opportunity to play there meant so much to him.
It was only three years ago that the 6-foot, 188-pound running back-turned-wide receiver who starred at Westerville High School just 15 minutes from Ohio State told his grandfather in their last conversation before he died that he had decided to become a Buckeye. His grandfather was an Ohio State fan to the core and the two talked about how Gill would one day play there.
But after two years in Columbus, Gill learned that the reality was different from the dream and had to explore his options. He announced in May he was transferring to Boston College. His immediate eligibility waiver was approved Tuesday by the NCAA.
“It was very deep, my commitment,” Gill said. “My last conversation before he passed, I had told him I was coming to Ohio State. He was a big Ohio State fan. As my time went on at Ohio State and I felt it was the best decision for me and my family to look elsewhere, it was definitely difficult because I did tell my grandfather that I was going to be playing at Ohio State. But I felt my grandfather would understand. He would want me to do what’s best for myself. So I’m glad we went that route.”
Gill has been with the Eagles since they returned to campus for voluntary workouts last month. Players quarantined for eight days before a round of COVID-19 testing. One player tested positive.
At this point, Gill said the days have been as close to normal as possible. He hits the training table for breakfast in the morning, works out for two hours, then goes back to his room. While college sports weighs the feasibility of even having a season this fall, Gill is looking ahead to the chance to prove he can live up to the expectations set for him after coming to Ohio State as the No. 2 football player in Ohio.
“I’ve always believed I can make a big impact,” Gill said. “Whatever role I have, whatever role the coaches give me, I feel like I can change the game in any way. I feel like Boston College is trying to change things around here. Like I said with me, I’m trying to prove myself right, but we’re trying to prove the rest of the country wrong as well. A lot of that goes into it and I’m just really excited to get the season started.”
Gill had a solid relationship with BC coach Jeff Hafley, who was co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State when Gill was a redshirt freshman. He said Hafley would compliment him during spring practice and told him how much potential he had.
When Gill entered the transfer portal in April, Hafley was one of the first coaches to reach out. Gill explored his options with Florida, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Southern Cal, and Baylor, but Boston College was the best fit.
“I already knew what [Hafley] was saying to me was stand-up and it was honest because he was a straight-up honest guy and I just felt comfortable,” Gill said. “I just felt like I was going to be taken care of the most here.”
Even though Gill came to the Buckeyes as a highly-touted, four-star recruit, he never found his footing at Ohio State. The process of converting to receiver was challenging initially, though he eventually found a level of comfort. He caught just six passes for 51 yards and one touchdown as a redshirt freshman last season and his snaps diminished as the season went on. With a wealth of talented receivers at Ohio State, getting on the field was a battle for Gill.
Being so close to home added a level of scrutiny.
“There’s a little pressure being a hometown kid,” he said. “Ohio State’s only 15 minutes away, so whenever I come back, people ask questions like, ‘Why are you not playing?’ This and that. But I kind of just blocked it out and kept tunnel vision, stayed focused.”
An opportunity was waiting for him at H-back this season filling the role left behind by Ohio State’s all-time leading pass catcher K.J. Hill, but Ohio State’s depth chart was only getting more crowded. Along with Garrett Milton and Chris Olave, Ohio State was adding a pair of five-star recruits in Julian Fleming and Jaxson Smith-Njigba plus two more four-star recruits, Gee Scott and Mookie Cooper.
Gill talked to Buckeyes receivers coach Brian Hartline about his future.
“Basically what I got out of the conversation is just that I would be struggling,” he said. “Going out of camp, I would be struggling to earn the starting spot. So I’d be a little bit down in the depth chart.”
Losing spring practice because of the pandemic ostensibly took away any chance Gill would have had to fight for a spot. Ultimately, Gill had to start looking elsewhere. But he has no regrets about his experience at Ohio State.
“I look at my time at Ohio State definitely as a learning experience,” he said. “It’s a great program. I’ve got nothing but love and respect for them. I learned a lot from the guys that were in front of me and around.”
Hafley and Gill have discussed the possibility of him returning to running back. The Eagles lost the school’s all-time leading rusher A.J. Dillon, who left a year early and was taken by the Green Bay Packers in the second round of the NFL Draft in April.
“Running back is where I’ve played my whole life,” Gill said. “That’s where most of my film is at right now. So, yeah, it was discussed a little bit. I’m really learning every position, anything that I can because I’m not exactly sure where I’ll be placed at, but it was brought up for sure.”
Coming to BC gives Gill a chance to turn the page.
“I’m trying to come here, I’m trying to have a clean narrative,” Gill said. “I want to change the whole narrative — whatever narrative there was about me. I just want to come here, work as hard as I can, gain respect from everybody around me, and just get the season started.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.