The top two rows of Ohio State’s wide receiver depth chart for 2018 could look exactly the same as they did in 2017.
Ohio State’s top six receivers from last season, all of whom were considered co-starters at their respective positions, are all back with the Buckeyes this season, and there’s no reason to believe that any of them are in line for a demotion.
Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor enter their junior years as potential stars at the 'X' receiver position, while 'Z' receivers Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon and H-backs/slot receivers Parris Campbell and K.J. Hill all put their NFL dreams on hold to return to Ohio State for another year.
It won’t be easy for any other receiver on Ohio State’s roster to beat any of them out for a spot on the Buckeyes’ two-deep.
There are receivers on the roster who have the talent to potentially do so, though, and Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith insists that those receivers will have a legitimate shot to earn their way into the rotation.
"At the end of the day, you got to go beat somebody out," Smith said after the Buckeyes’ second practice of the spring on Thursday. "The best guy’s going to play. Whoever that is. I don’t care if it’s you. You could come play X, if you want, if you beat out Austin Mack and Ben Victor."
I don’t have the size, speed, hands or collegiate eligibility to challenge Mack and Victor for a spot on Ohio State’s wide receiver depth chart, but Jaylen Harris does. Demario McCall offers the potential to play a Curtis Samuel-esque role at H-back, while C.J. Saunders – despite being a walk-on – has shown an impressive ability in limited action to get open and make plays from the slot.
Redshirt freshman wide receiver Ellijah Gardiner will also be looking to earn playing time this year, while the Buckeyes have four more freshman wide receivers coming in this summer in Kamryn Babb, Cameron Brown, Chris Olave and L’Christian "Blue" Smith.
That’s not to say that any of the six co-starters from last season deserve to lose their spots in the rotation, because all of them have things that they do well. Mack and Victor are both big, athletic wideouts in their own right who have flashed promising downfield playmaking ability. Campbell is an explosive athlete who is dynamic the ball in his hands. Hill is a skilled route runner who does a good job getting open and making plays in the intermediate passing game. Dixon has shown an uncanny ability for scoring touchdowns, reaching the end zone on eight of his 18 receptions in 2017. McLaurin is the best blocking receiver on the team.
With that being said, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said earlier this week that he is challenging the wide receivers – and Smith as their coach – to elevate their level of performance, believing that the receivers did not quite play up to Ohio State’s standard last season.
"We have been good," Meyer said of the wide receivers’ performance. "We have not been elite."
As such, Ohio State’s returning top six wide receivers will each be expected to raise their game, and if they don’t, they could lose their jobs to someone else.
"There’s some loyalty to a guy that’s played maybe, or you just expect that that will be the starter the next year, but there’s no expectation here," Smith said. "Everybody’s got to go earn it. And so that gives a young guy hope, that maybe didn’t have as strong of a role, and it keeps those older guys to motivate to stay ahead of the curve, stay ahead of those younger guys, because they know people are coming after their spot."
For Harris, McCall, Saunders or any other receiver to earn their way into the rotation, however, Smith says they must first earn their way onto the field on special teams – an area in which five of Ohio State’s top six receivers, with the exception of Victor, saw regular playing time last season.
"They have to get on the field on special teams, they all do, and that’s what my top six from last year did," Smith said. "They were all over the field on special teams. So they got to get on the field for that, and if they do, then we can talk about playing receiver."
“At the end of the day, you got to go beat somebody out.”– Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith
McCall is first in line to be both Ohio State’s kickoff and punt returner this season, Meyer said Tuesday, which should give McCall his opportunity to make his mark on special teams. Saunders also worked with the punt returners during Ohio State’s opening practice, and Harris’ 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame should give him potential to carve out a special teams role as a blocker or in kickoff coverage.
Realistically, any wide receiver on Ohio State’s roster not named Mack, Victor, McLaurin, Dixon, Campbell or Hill likely faces an uphill battle to see regular playing time for the Buckeyes offense this season. But as the Buckeyes seek improved play from their receiver unit as a whole, they aren’t ruling out the possibility of any wide receiver climbing up – or sliding down – the depth chart.