When Ohio State desperately needed an offensive spark during their College Football Playoff semifinal game against Clemson, the Buckeyes turned to true freshman Binjimen Victor – an exuberant and talented yet completely unproven receiver from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
"The playoffs, in a big game and you have a true freshman out there in a critical spot that’s going to make a catch to move the ball," wide receiver's coach Zach Smith said. "There was a lot of trust in him at that point."
“I DON’T KNOW IF I’VE EVER HAD [A RECEIVER] WITH AS HIGH A CEILING AS HE DOES."– Zach Smith
Victor had just one catch in that game – a 21-yard first-down reception – but he played more meaningful snaps than he had all season combined, seeing the field over older, far more experienced players in the most important game of the team's season. That should speak volumes to what the coaching staff thinks of his ability, Smith said.
"Our offense wasn’t clicking, obviously, and so he didn’t have numbers and stats like maybe he would have it was clicking," Smith said. "But he was a guy on the field in a critical time, so that should be telling in itself.”
Until that point, Victor saw the field sparingly, and only when the game was well at hand. Before that reception against Clemson, the freshman receiver had just three catches on the season, and all three were in blow-out games.
Even in those brief, essentially meaningless appearances, Victor showed flashes of his potential. He was targeting in the end zone against Rutgers, nearly pulled down a touchdown catch against Nebraska, and he scored his first and only touchdown of the season late in the game against Maryland, hauling in a 26-yard pass from backup quarterback Joe Burrow.
"He was always a guy that showed some ability and you’d be like ‘wow, this kid could be really good,’" Smith said. "But he’d get tired, he’d get exhausted and maybe he wasn’t the toughest kid in the world when he first got here, but now you’re seeing him fight through stuff."
Smith said some keys for the young receiver's development are gaining weight and playing more physical. Victor arrived in Columbus weighing just 180 lbs. He's since gained a little weight as he's up to 191, but Smith said the target is 200 lbs. Then, he must learn how to use that size and his other physical gifts with confidence.
"He’s gotta be physical, he’s gotta play big, he’s gotta play like a dominant receiver," Smith said. "He still doesn’t have the self confidence to play to his ability level. So he’s gotta experience success, he’s gotta have small victories, he’s gotta keep getting coached, keep getting grinding to the point where he feels like he’s going to be a dominant guy."
"Last year, I didn't have any clue what was going on. This year, I have an understanding. Now I feel more comfortable and I can play."– Binjimen Victor
More than the physical aspect of the game, though, Victor said he struggled to understand the offense and the plays last season, and that's what kept him off the field. When he spoke to the media on Thursday, Victor mentioned no less than seven times that he felt confused and frustrated trying make sense of the offense in practice.
"Last year, it was kind of on and off for me, just coming into practice not knowing everything," Victor said. "Working hard – that's never the issue. It's just me trying to get the plays down and being consistent as I do it."
Victor said it was discouraging. He was down on himself and found himself just trying to get through practice every day. But the turning point came during bowl practices when he said everything just seemed to click, and it's been all uphill from there.
"Last year, I didn't have any clue what was going on," Victor said. "This year, I have an understanding. Now I feel more comfortable and I can play."
Now comfortable with the offense, a little bigger and more confident, Buckeye fans hope to see a new-and-improved Victor as he takes on what will likely be a starting role this upcoming season. Smith is confident they'll see just that, but says he's still nowhere near his potential.
“I don’t know if i’ve ever had [a receiver] with as high a ceiling as he does," Smith said. "Just his ability – he is a 6-foot-4 kid with a seven foot wingspan that can run, he’s loose, he can get in and out of breaks, he plays physical at times."
"He still needs to grow up and mature but he’s got a skill set. He does some things sometimes that you’re like ‘woah.’”