Ohio State’s recruiting class of 2017 is entering a pivotal season.
Those Buckeyes are entering their third season in Columbus, which means they’re expected to be ready to play significant roles for Ohio State if they haven’t already. Each of them now have two years as Ohio State players under their belts, and by the end of the upcoming season, all of them will be on the back end of their careers while some of them will have decisions to make about whether it’s time to go to the NFL.
With that in mind, Eleven Warriors is taking an individual look this offseason at each of Ohio State’s third-year players – in descending order of their 247Sports composite recruiting rankings – and the expectations that preceded their Ohio State careers, how they have performed in their first two seasons as Buckeyes and the outlook for the remainder of their careers.
The 11th installment of the Third-Year Reset brings us to Jaylen Harris, who is looking to earn a place in Ohio State’s wide receiver rotation after two quiet seasons to begin his career with the Buckeyes.
Before He Became a Buckeye
Harris emerged as one of the best players in the state of Ohio during his career at Cleveland Heights High School, catching 95 passes for 1,666 yards and 13 touchdowns in his final two high school seasons and earning first-team All-Ohio honors in his senior year.
A basketball player at Cleveland Heights as well, Harris was named as the High School Athlete of the Year at the Greater Cleveland Sports Awards in 2017.
Harris was ranked as the fourth-best prospect from the state of Ohio, the 28th-best wide receiver and the No. 177 overall prospect in his recruiting class.
Career to Date
Harris made his debut in Ohio State’s fourth game of the 2017 season against UNLV, and also played in each of the Buckeyes’ next two games against Rutgers and Maryland. In 43 snaps between those three games, Harris caught two passes for 27 yards. After missing time due to an injury, however, Harris did not play in any additional games as a true freshman.
Last season, Harris played in three of Ohio State’s first four games for a total of 40 snaps, catching two passes for 22 yards. After that, however, Harris’ only playing time the rest of the season came in the fourth quarter of the Buckeyes’ loss to Purdue – for six snaps – after Austin Mack left the game with a foot injury. That injury proved to be season-ending for Mack, opening the door for Harris to potentially take his place in the receiver rotation, but that playing time ended up going to freshman Chris Olave instead.
As a result of the new rules allowing players to participate in up to four games and still redshirt if they have not redshirted already, Harris was granted a redshirt last season and remains a sophomore in eligibility.
The biggest thing that has kept Harris out of the wide receiver rotation in his first two seasons as a Buckeye has been the presence of Mack and Binjimen Victor, who both play the same X receiver position that he does, ahead of him on the depth chart as co-starters.
Mack and Victor are both back for another season at Ohio State this year, which keep Harris out of the rotation once again. That said, the Buckeyes moved Mack to Z receiver this spring in order to get him some experience at that spot – and one reason why they did that, wide receivers coach Brian Hartline said, was because of the development of Harris.
“If I didn’t feel good about Jaylen Harris, it would be hard to make that move, but with Jaylen Harris and how he’s coming, that’s a great example of why I feel comfortable moving Austin,” Hartline said.
Still, Harris faces tough competition to earn a spot on Ohio State’s wide receiver two-deep. Chris Olave is in line for a permanent role in the receiver rotation this year, and true freshman Garrett Wilson appears likely to earn an immediate spot in the rotation after an excellent first spring as an early enrollee. Their emergence at the Z receiver spot could push Mack back to X, while Wilson could also factor in at X.
Now that he is going into his third year with the Buckeyes, Ohio State should be motivated to get Harris on the field. He’s the biggest wide receiver on the team at 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, giving him the potential to present a tough matchup on the outside and in the red zone.
With so much talent around him in Ohio State’s receiving corps, there’s a chance he’ll be the odd man out again if the Buckeyes stick with two-man rotations at both outside receiver positions. He’s going to have a chance this summer, though, to prove he belongs on the field, and that could allow him to move up the depth chart or even lead to a deeper rotation if he does.
“Truly, the best players play,” Hartline said. “We’re an uptempo offense, so we need guys, we need depth. We’re gonna roll guys. Because in the end, we just can’t play fast, unless we have legs. So the more guys, the better.”
Mack and Victor are both seniors this year, so the depth chart should open up for Harris in 2020 if it doesn’t this year. Slot receivers K.J. Hill and C.J. Saunders are seniors this year, as well, which puts Harris in position to be one of the most veteran wide receivers on the entire roster in 2020.
Harris would certainly prefer for 2019 to be his breakout season at Ohio State, but regardless of how this season plays out for him, next year will be the year that the Buckeyes really need him to play a big role.
Ohio State will have other young receivers pushing for playing time in 2020, too – it already has two wide receiver commitments for next year’s class in Gee Scott Jr. and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and it could be on the verge of landing another from five-star Pennsylvania target Julian Fleming – but as long as Harris stays the course and continues to improve this year, he should be a leading candidate to take a spot on the two-deep vacated by Mack or Victor next season (if he doesn’t already land one this season).
With three remaining seasons of eligibility, Harris still has plenty of time to emerge as a playmaker in Ohio State’s offense and potentially a future NFL player. Whether he gets that opportunity in 2019 could depend on how deep the Buckeyes opt to rotate at wide receiver and whether the receivers atop the depth chart stay healthy, but 2020 looms as a likely make-or-break season for his Ohio State career.