Asked to name a receiver other than K.J. Hill who could play a big role in Ohio State’s offense this year, Justin Fields could have gone in a number of different directions.
He could have named Austin Mack or Binjimen Victor, who – like Hill – are seniors who have been staples in the Buckeyes’ wide receiver rotation for the past two years. He could have named Chris Olave, a rising sophomore who appears primed for a big year after breaking out down the stretch of his freshman season. He could have gone with a veteran like Jaylen Harris who is potentially on the verge of breaking into the rotation for the first time, or he could have even gone with a tight end like Luke Farrell, Rashod Berry or Jeremy Ruckert.
Yet even with all of that more experienced talent around him, the wide receiver Fields named was true freshman Garrett Wilson.
“He’s going to play a big part in this year’s success,” Fields said during an interview with BTN on Tuesday. “He’s really been a big part of this offense. He’s gained respect from the whole team in just the way he’s been on the field, off the field. He works hard, so I’m very excited about him.”
From the moment they arrived on campus together in January, only Fields has received more hype among Ohio State players who have yet to actually play a single snap for the Buckeyes than Wilson. The five-star freshman received rave reviews from both coaches and teammates for his performance as an early enrollee this spring, and that’s continued into the summer and the Buckeyes’ first four days of preseason camp.
When asked about Ohio State’s younger wide receivers at Big Ten media days, Hill said Wilson is “standing out.”
“He shows flashes every day,” Hill said of Wilson. “He's definitely going to help us a lot this year, I feel like. I just feel like he has to have a great training camp and be consistent.”
“He’s going to play a big part in this year’s success.”– Justin Fields on Garrett Wilson
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day has been regularly complimentary of Wilson through his first seven months on campus, often naming Wilson this spring when he was asked about the young players who had impressed him. He’s made it clear that he believes Wilson – the first of Ohio State’s new freshmen to shed his black stripe this spring – is ahead of the curve for where a true freshman usually is in his development entering his first college season, and through the first four days of August practices, all indications are that’s still the case.
“We think Garrett is going to help us this year,” Day said Tuesday. “The good thing for us is we had him in the spring, so we saw him flash. He does have a lot of ability.”
In addition to competing for a spot in the wide receiver rotation, Wilson is also among the players competing to possibly be the Buckeyes’ punt returner this year – along with Hill, C.J. Saunders, Jaelen Gill and Demario McCall – and special teams coordinator Matt Barnes has been impressed with what he’s seen from Wilson, as well, describing the freshman as “outstanding.”
“He’s smooth, he’s got unbelievable ball skills, he’s got confidence that far exceeds his years, so I expect good things from him,” Barnes said.
Amid all the praise that Wilson has received, there is still growth that Day wants to see from Wilson over the next few weeks leading up to the start of the season. While no one is questioning that Wilson has the tools to be an elite wide receiver, Day said there are still areas in which Wilson needs to improve to play up to his potential.
“Because he has so much talent, he has to learn how to develop discipline and skill,” Day said. “That's critical for him. We sat down and had those conversations. He's working on it. But he has a lot of talent.”
Mack and Victor are expected to be the Buckeyes’ starting outside receivers and Olave is also a lock for a spot in the rotation, which could leave only one more spot in the outside receiver rotation that will see more playing time, and Wilson still has to earn that spot.
During the portion of Tuesday’s practice that was open to the media, Wilson was third in line at the X receiver position behind Victor and Harris, while Ellijah Gardiner backed up Olave at the Z position with Mack sidelined by an undisclosed injury. Harris and Gardiner are also pushing for playing time at wide receiver entering their third seasons at Ohio State, and both Day on Tuesday and Hill last month praised their improvement.
Ultimately, though, it would be a surprise if Wilson isn’t in the rotation right off the bat when the Buckeyes play Florida Atlantic in their season opener on Aug. 31. With Ohio State’s head coach, presumptive starting quarterback and best wide receiver all showing confidence in Wilson, he seems to be well on his way to earning substantial playing time – probably the most playing time of any true freshman on Ohio State’s roster this year.
“He's fighting right now for a backup spot, and an opportunity to play, because if you're a backup receiver at Ohio State you're playing a lot of football, the way that we rotate those guys,” Day said of Wilson. “So he's right there right now, and how he practices over the next couple weeks is going to determine how much he plays, but he's flashed for sure.”