Ohio State will go wherever it needs to go in order to find a quarterback, and last year the Buckeyes went to Pierre, South Dakota for Lincoln Kienholz.
Buckeye head coach Ryan Day wants a quarterback in every recruiting class, and the 2023 class brought him to TF Riggs High School, where Kienholz was a multi-sport All-State athlete.
Kienholz was a three-year starter at quarterback for TF Riggs where he helped his team to three-consecutive state championships. (The Governors have actually won six state titles in a row, but who’s counting?)
As a junior, Kienholz threw for a state-record 3,359 yards. He also rushed for 1,165 yards. It was after that season that colleges really began to take notice. South Dakota State offered in February, followed by some Group of Five offers. Then came April and May, which brought offers from the likes of Pitt, Washington, Washington State, Wisconsin, Illinois, Wyoming, Minnesota, and Kansas State.
This was rarefied air for a South Dakota prospect, and air that Kienholz had only recently truly begun thinking about.
“I’ve coached seven years here, so I’ve known Lincoln since he was in seventh grade,” TF Riggs head football coach Steve Steele told Buckeye Huddle. “He did not play football as a seventh grader, crazy enough. But we knew he was the best athlete in that class.”
Before Lincoln Kienholz was ever recruited by South Dakota State or Ohio State, he was recruited by Steele. Kienholz played baseball and basketball, and played them well. He was a two-time All-State guard on the hardwood, and is also a talented pitcher with a dangerous bat.
Despite concerns that football might take away from baseball and basketball, Kienholz joined the eighth grade team, initially viewing himself as a wide receiver. By the time he was a freshman, however, he was the Govs’ backup quarterback.
“You know, I really wouldn’t say that he was set on playing college football until he was a junior in high school,” Steele said. “I think, as a freshman, if you’d have asked him he probably would have said baseball. As a sophomore, I think he’d probably have said basketball. And then once he had the junior year that he did, then I think from then on, he was like, ‘Okay, football is what I am meant to do.'”
As a sophomore, Kienholz threw for 2,163 yards with 20 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. The Governors had two losses in the regular season, but everything came together for them down the stretch and the season ended with a fourth state championship in a row.
It was that season where Steele began to think he had a high-level quarterback on his hands. But he wasn’t sure just how high.
“I think in South Dakota, our high level traditionally is a South Dakota State or North Dakota State. We definitely saw him going to that level,” Steele said. “Beyond that was just hard to know because we’ve never really experienced that here. A couple of the players that we played against had made that level. There was a quarterback his junior year on one of our teams that went to Minnesota, and we felt Lincoln was on par or better than that kid. So I think that was kind of the time that we really thought ‘Okay, maybe he is big time, and not just South Dakota big time.'”
Further hints came after Kienholz’s junior season. The attention grew out past the South Dakota borders, reaching from Pennsylvania to Washington. A small-town kid with big-time suitors. And when it was time for throwing sessions, Pierre’s population of about 14,000 would always grow a bit just based on the number of college coaches in town.
“Oh, I mean, I thought it was pretty cool, just in the sense that we have someone — again, Pierre is not an easy place to get to — I thought it was a pretty neat deal that we had one morning before school where we had eight different schools attend a throwing session for him,” Steele said.
“It’s 6:30 in the morning in Pierre, South Dakota, so I thought that was a pretty neat deal and just a crazy thing. We had quite a few community members that showed up just to watch because, you know, in a smaller town, it’s just one of those things that doesn’t happen, and when something like that is happening a lot of people notice and come out and then watch and support just because you don’t know when or if it’s ever going to happen again.”
Why Ohio State?
Lincoln Kienholz had a senior season for the ages, throwing for a state-record 3,422 yards with 46 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He also rushed for 1,436 yards and another 24 touchdowns, averaging 9.6 yards per carry.
For his career, he finished with over 9,000 yards passing, 3,000 yards rushing, and nearly 150 touchdowns responsible.
In the summer before those senior numbers were posted, Kienholz took four official visits. He went to Wisconsin, Wyoming, North Dakota State, and Washington. Less than a week after his trip to Washington, he committed to the Huskies.
About five months after that, he took an official visit to Ohio State and received an offer from the Buckeyes. Two weeks later, Kienholz decommitted from Washington and committed to Ohio State. One week later, he signed his letter of intent.
What was it about Ohio State that suited Kienholz so well?
“I think first and foremost, Lincoln is a competitor in everything he does,” Steele explained. “That’s one of the reasons he stayed here this spring, I think, is that he wanted to be able to compete with basketball one more time. And he wanted to be able to compete in baseball one more time for his town and for his high school and friends and all that, but he’s just a kid that loves to compete.
“I don’t know that he knows how to turn that off. I mean, if you’re messing around, and you play a game of Xbox or something like that with him, he won’t lose. He won’t want to lose. Drills or whatever it is, he hates not being competitive and not being the best. I think to him, Ohio State represented an opportunity to show that.”
The last three starting quarterbacks under Ryan Day have all been Heisman finalists and first-round draft picks. They have been in the spotlight, and none of that has been lost on Kienholz.
“I think he felt that if he can earn the starting quarterback job at Ohio State, then he’s the best quarterback in the country,” Steele said. “I think ultimately, that was so appealing to him. And that’s what he wants to do. He wants to show that even though he’s from small-town South Dakota, he can go and still be the best player in the country and make the NFL, and that’s obviously his goal. He’s got to go a long ways and work hard to make that happen, but he felt Ohio State could do that for him.”
When it comes to what kind of player the Buckeyes are getting, the records and the titles are indicative of a quarterback who can make plays, but there is still room to grow.
Despite all of the accolades, Steele self-deprecatingly admits that the quarterback coaching at TF Riggs could have been a little better.
“I think that technically he’s got a lot to learn,” Steele said. “His drops, I mean, he had an offensive lineman as a quarterback coach. I was not a quarterback. So I mean, he’s definitely going to have some ground to cover there.”
Kienholz was not Steele’s first All-State quarterback, however, so don’t get too hung up on the humility. Kienholz learned plenty at TF Riggs, and is well-equipped to learn a whole lot more at Ohio State.
“I think he’s a fast learner and will adapt to everything really quick, which is a strength,” Steele said. “But I think his other strengths, his mind has just grown leaps and bounds. I think he really understands football at a high level right now. He understands progressions, reads, coverages blocking. He understands a lot of that stuff and I think that’ll serve him really well in college. Then just in general, he’s a gamer. It’s probably cliche to say, but he’s a guy that when things break down, you want the ball in his hands because every play could be a touchdown.
“He turned a couple of sacks this year into 90-yard touchdowns. That’s something that I don’t think every quarterback — even every big-time quarterback — can do. Some of them are going to be content to take a sack and win the next play. But I really think Lincoln’s competitiveness just doesn’t allow him to quit on plays. Now, I think he got a little bit better at understanding that winning a play can be different things. Maybe it’s a five-yard gain instead of a five-yard loss. But his inability to quit on a play is something that I think is special.”
Doubt Lincoln Kienholz At Your Own Risk
This is not Ohio State’s first foray into South Dakota High School Football, but Lincoln Kienholz is just the second-ever player from South Dakota to sign with the Buckeyes. The first was offensive lineman Grant Schmidt out of Roosevelt High School in Sioux Falls back in 2015.
The number of FBS players the state produces fluctuates each year, and it’s never very large. That is one of the reasons why some question the level of play of Kienholz and prospects like him.
Sure, he threw for over 3,000 yards and rushed for over 1,400 yards as a senior, but what kind of talent was he playing against?
Despite questions like that, Kienholz was invited to play in the All-American Bowl for the West team this past January. He performed well throughout the week, and stood out during the game as well.
Steele — and the assorted Ohio State coaches — are convinced that the one-week glimpse in San Antonio this past winter answered any kind of questions a person could have about Kienholz being able to handle a higher level of football.
“It’s one of those things where I guess you’ll learn and find out,” Steele said. “I think the All-American bowl showed quite a bit. I mean, that’s the best high school seniors in the country, and he was the only one on his team that threw for a touchdown and didn’t make any bad plays or bad decisions.”
Kienholz’s West squad was pushed around all afternoon, but it never stopped him from fighting to add a couple of touchdowns while being blown out in the second half.
What Kienholz showed in the All-American Bowl against five-star prospects and blue-chip athletes was exactly what Steele had seen in Pierre, South Dakota for the past two-plus seasons.
Steele looks back on the All-American Bowl as proof that his quarterback can play at any level, but also as an example of a guy who simply refuses to quit, despite an all-star environment where that is generally expected.
“That first touchdown where he evaded the pressure and rolled out to the left and threw a touchdown is one example,” he said. “I mean, a lot of people could have — especially at that point in the game where you’ve been rushed and pressured and sacked and hit all game — could have just sat down and taken it and said, ‘You know what, this is not fun. I’m running around for my life and I don’t want to get hit again.’ Then he reverses out, reverses field, and then launches a touchdown pass. I think that shows a lot about it. I think in terms of arm talent, quality of competition doesn’t change one’s arm talent. I don’t think that part matters. But again, ultimately we’ll see when he gets down there, but it’s gonna be hard for me to ever want to bet against this kid.”
Same As He Ever Was
Every person is a product of their surroundings, and Lincoln Kienholz is an unapologetic product of Pierre, South Dakota. So much so that in today’s age of Name, Image, and Likeness, and players graduating entire years early to cash in, Kienholz is instead appreciating the time he has remaining in the place that helped him become who he is.
“The biggest thing that Lincoln impressed me with throughout this whole process is he never allowed this process to change him,” Steele said. “It’d be very easy, especially as a kid in a smaller town like this, to get all these big things and to turn yourself into a big thing, you know? His friends are still his friends, and this town is still home.”
Kienholz will be enrolling at Ohio State in a little over a month from now. When he gets to Columbus, the spotlight and pressure will begin. But so will the competition, and no matter how different Pierre and Columbus are, he will find a familiar home in the surrounding walls of competition.
And regardless of how well he does at Ohio State — the ups and downs, peaks and valleys, Steele expects the one constant to be Lincoln Kienholz himself.
“No matter how good he ever is at Ohio State and beyond, he’s still gonna be the same small-town kid,” he said. “He’s still going to be proud of where he’s come from, and he’s never going to turn down an opportunity to go hunt and fish. I think he’s always going to be that same kid. I hope that for him and I truly believe that about him. That’s something I don’t think will ever change.”