Gahanna Lincoln High School defensive lineman Jonathon Cooper might have the highest profile among area seniors who have committed to Football Bowl Subdivision programs.

Gahanna Lincoln High School defensive lineman Jonathon Cooper might have the highest profile among area seniors who have committed to Football Bowl Subdivision programs.

That's what happens when you're going to play for Ohio State.

Hilliard Darby quarterback Nick Powers won't be under as large of a spotlight when he begins his college career, but what some might consider a letdown doesn't seem like a bad consolation prize to him.

After rushing for a combined 40 touchdowns the last two seasons as the Panthers extended their string of Division I playoff appearances to four, Powers was expected to sign with Ashland University on national signing day Feb. 3.

Although he could have been a preferred walk-on for the Buckeyes, Powers instead will have his education paid for and get the opportunity to further his athletic career as a safety for a respected NCAA Division II program.

"With my athletic and academic money combined, I'll be getting pretty much a full ride," Powers said. "I had six (Division II) offers, some were for quarterback and others were for safety. Ohio State offered me a walk-on for safety as well, but I chose Ashland because I loved the campus, coaches and the football program."

For those with college football aspirations, weighing the dream of playing at the highest level against competing for a lower-level program never has been more difficult. It's a decision of prestige versus playing time, and of possibly paying your own way as a walk-on versus receiving scholarship dollars.

While Ohio State is among eight schools in the state that compete in the FBS, only Dayton and Youngstown State are in the Football Championship Subdivision.

The next level down is Division II, which features Ashland among its 10 Ohio football programs. Of those schools, however, seven made the move up from either NCAA Division III or the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics since 2008.

At the same time, there's athletic scholarship money available at those schools.

"More (Division II) money has opened up more offers, and I think kids look more seriously at D-II and some FCS teams that used to be non-scholarship but now have some scholarships available," Watterson coach Dan Bjelac said.

Differing options by division

After previously competing in NAIA, Ohio Dominican became the only central Ohio Division II football program in 2011.

The Panthers had winning seasons each of the past five years under Bill Conley, who is no longer the coach after he and the school failed to reach agreement on a new contract.

Dublin Coffman linebacker Isaac McKinney and Gahanna defensive lineman Nick Vernon were among those expected to be a part of the Panthers' latest recruiting class.

While FBS programs are allowed to provide 85 scholarships and FCS programs may give 63 by NCAA standards, Division II programs are limited to 36 scholarships.

It also is common practice for Division II schools to split up the 36 scholarships into partial scholarships.

There are 21 schools that compete in Division III in Ohio, including Capital, Denison, Ohio Wesleyan and Otterbein in central Ohio as well as 12-time national champion Mount Union, which is in Alliance.

Division III programs, however, do not offer athletic scholarships.

Along with Ashland and Ohio Dominican, Division II schools in Ohio that have football are Central State, Findlay, Lake Erie, Malone, Notre Dame College, Tiffin, Urbana and Walsh.

Cincinnati Christian will be the only NAIA school in Ohio to have football when it begins competing in the sport in 2016.

NAIA programs are limited to 24 scholarships.

"There are many more colleges coming through the (high) schools to meet the kids, especially Division II schools," Worthington Kilbourne coach Vince Trombetti said. "Not so much from Ohio because they always came around when they (were classified in other divisions), but now there are more Division II schools from surrounding states coming by because they have to compete with the Ohio Division II schools."

Putting dreams into focus

For athletes like Powers, the chance to earn scholarship money while still playing a high level of football is enticing.

In early January, Ohio State announced that former Watterson standout Craig Fada would be put on scholarship for the spring semester, but that came after spending the last three years as a walk-on.

Powers is looking forward to learning more about the skills necessary to play safety after seeing limited action at the position for Darby, and he believes he'll get that chance sooner at Ashland.

"I also wouldn't be getting any money at Ohio State, so I'd be graduating with a lot of debt and finding it hard to find a spot on Ohio State's field in the future," Powers said.

While five of Ohio's FBS programs competed in bowl games and Dayton made the FCS playoffs in 2015, Ashland went 10-1 last season and made the Division II playoffs.

Of the more than 140 players on Ashland's roster last fall, 24 came from Central District programs.

Among those is 2012 Pickerington North graduate Zach Olszewski, who played quarterback in high school but became a starter at linebacker for Ashland by 2013 and will be a redshirt senior next fall.

When he was making his college decision, Olszewski had the option of walking on at a Mid-American Conference school or accepting a partial scholarship to play for a Division II program.

He chose the latter and since has moved to full scholarship status.

"It's been a great experience," Olszewski said. "Of course, everyone wants to get a big Division I scholarship, but once I visited, I liked the size of the school and it's worked out well for me. I always thought I'd play quarterback in college, but when the opportunity to play linebacker came up, I decided to go with it. There are a lot of good players coming out of central Ohio who come here.

"When I started (at Ashland), I got half of a scholarship, and it was kind of an earn-it type of deal. Once I started playing, then they moved me up to a full ride."

Scholarships are still elusive

Even with the increase of Division II programs in Ohio offering more opportunities at that level for players throughout the state, earning football scholarship money remains a privilege that few achieve.

Upper Arlington coach Joel Cutler believes connections between high school and college coaches can help players get noticed.

After watching his brother, current London coach Kyle Cutler, walk on at Bowling Green as a linebacker in the mid-2000s, Joel Cutler strongly encourages his players to not pass up scholarship money at a lower level.

"In Ohio you have some great coaching relationships, and in Ohio we have great football," Cutler said. "Still, only around 1 percent of high school seniors move on. I tell my players that it's a great opportunity no matter what level you can play at. The Division II schools can strategically use (their scholarships) however they want to and can combine it with academic scholarship money, especially if tuition is high for an out-of-state school.

"Really, it's personal based on the needs of the family. I always tell guys that walking on is a tough way to go because the school is always looking for the next best kid."

Darby coach John Santagata stresses that his players put substance above dreams when they're considering college opportunities.

It's a balance that he admits is easier said than done.

"Every kid would love to play FBS or FCS football," Santagata said. "However, the reality is very few get that opportunity. The recruiting process can be very confusing to athletes and their families. It's not an enjoyable situation for most families. Athletes need to be realistic about their abilities and make wise choices when it comes to college athletics and educational aspirations."

Trombetti reminds his players about the importance of keeping their grades up if in case only a minimal amount of athletic scholarship money is available.

"It's not about the size of the school you play for, it's about the package that the school can put together," Trombetti said. "The bottom line is about going to college and getting your degree. If you're looking to get (an FBS) scholarship, there is only so much we can do on our end to make that happen. (But) if you're looking to play football at the next level, we can almost guarantee that we can make that happen."