Wide receiver might be one of Ohio State’s biggest positions of uncertainty going into the 2020 season, but that’s not due to any lack of talent.
Ohio State returns only two receivers from its core rotation in 2019, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, yet its receiver room is as loaded with talent as it’s ever been. Of the 11 scholarship receivers on Ohio State’s roster for 2020, eight of them were top-100-ranked receivers in their respective recruiting classes – and that doesn’t include Olave, the Buckeyes’ leading receiver from last season.
It’s unquestioned that Olave, who caught 49 passes for 849 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2019, is positioned to be the leader of Ohio State’s receiving corps in 2020. Wilson, a five-star recruit who caught 30 passes for 432 yards and five touchdowns as a true freshman, is a budding star who should also be in the starting lineup.
The question, as the Buckeyes’ preparations for 2020 begin, is which receivers other than Olave and Wilson will be most ready to play this year – and which spots they might line up at as Ohio State replaces K.J. Hill, Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor to reload its rotation for next season.
While the Buckeyes only rotated five wide receivers regularly this past season, with Hill playing the vast majority of snaps in the slot, they’d ideally like to go back to a six-man rotation in 2020 with two X receivers, two Z receivers and two H-backs/slot receivers. Ultimately, Ohio State’s goal over the next eight months will be to first determine who its best six receivers are, then figure out the most effective way to get those six receivers on the field.
“We're going to rank our top six wide receivers and figure out who are the top six,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said. “And whoever those top six are, they're going to get on the field.”
Olave and Wilson will almost certainly be the top two receivers in that ranking, at least to start, but the rest of the spots behind them could be open for competition.
Aside from those two, the surest bet to be in the top six looks to be Jameson Williams, who was the No. 82 overall prospect in the recruiting class of 2019. Williams played the third-most snaps in 2019 among returning receivers (151) and drew praise from his coaches for his development over the course of his freshman season. That wasn’t quite enough to earn him a spot in the regular rotation last year – in part because he played the same Z receiver position that Olave and Mack did – but it should be in his sophomore year as long as his development continues along its current trajectory.
“It’s a major springboard,” Williams said at Fiesta Bowl media day when asked about his playing experience in 2019. “We only can wait to see what happens next year.”
Another receiver who presumably should be a frontrunner to break into the rotation is Jaelen Gill, who was ranked as the No. 30 overall prospect in the recruiting class of 2018. His career has started slower than expected, as he played only 63 snaps in 2019 as a redshirt freshman, but he’s a shifty athlete with the upside to be a difference-maker, and has spent the past two years learning the slot receiver position where Ohio State now has a wide-open depth chart.
“Next year’s a big year for me,” Gill said after the Big Ten Championship Game. “The H position’s wide open with K.J. being gone. So hopefully, I’ll be able to come in, step in and take the position.”
The most veteran wide receivers on the team (not including fifth-year senior Demario McCall, who has spent time at both running back and H-back and could also be a top candidate in the slot receiver rotation if he stays in Brian Hartline’s position group) are Jaylen Harris and Ellijah Gardiner, both now fourth-year juniors. Neither has seen on the field in a regular capacity in their first seasons at Ohio State – Harris has played 178 career offensive snaps while Gardiner has played just 25 – but they’ll both be trying to change that as their Buckeye careers start to near their end.
“It’s going to be a huge opportunity,” Harris said at Fiesta Bowl media day regarding the 2020 season. “I just have to come in and try to outwork everybody in the room.”
Kamryn Babb, who was the No. 73 overall prospect in the class of 2018, has the talent to compete for a spot in the rotation if he can get healthy; at this point, however, it’s uncertain what Babb will be able to bring to the Buckeyes in 2020 after he missed both of the last two seasons with torn ACLs.
All of those veterans are going to face immediate competition from Ohio State’s four wide receiver signees for the recruiting class of 2020 – No. 2 overall prospect Julian Fleming, No. 33 Jaxon Smith-Njigba, No. 62 Gee Scott Jr. and No. 82 Mookie Cooper – who are all already on campus as midyear enrollees and have the talent to challenge for playing time right away.
Cooper, the shortest receiver of the bunch (5-9, 195), is expected to play slot receiver, but the other three each have the potential to line up at multiple receiver spots – though Scott told Eleven Warriors at the All-American Bowl that he expects to start at X receiver, while Smith-Njigba said he will learn both the H and Z positions – as the Buckeyes figure out who their best six receivers are and how to get them all on the field.
“We really like guys that are very versatile and can play different things,” Ohio State wide receivers coach Brian Hartline said Dec. 18 after the Buckeyes signed the four new freshmen. “The other three guys, I think they’re very flexible. I think they can kind of all move around, and we’ll kind of see how it all plays out. I kind of have a game-plan in my head, but I kind of want to leave it there, and we’ll see how it goes. Again, a lot of that’s based on the current guys and how they’re doing and how do we complement what they do with what these guys may do.”
The Buckeyes don’t want to lock into playing receivers at specific positions because if they do that, they could end up keeping one of their best receivers off the field as a result.
“What you don't want to do is just pigeonhole a guy, you only play this position, and have three really good players at one position and only one is on the field,” Day said this week. “So we’re going to look at that here as we move into the spring.”
“We're going to rank our top six wide receivers and figure out who are the top six. And whoever those top six are, they're going to get on the field.”– Ryan Day
That could even mean moving veteran receivers who have played outside so far in their Ohio State careers inside to slot receiver, depending on which receivers the Buckeyes believe have the change-of-direction ability to make a smooth transition to that position.
“I think that anything’s on the table. In the end, you always want your best players on the field, and we’ll take a hard look at that as an offense and see where maybe each guy would be most successful,” Hartline said. “I don’t ever like putting handcuffs on anybody and putting them in a box and telling them they can only play one position. I feel like these guys, they come in here, they’re great receivers. They can play any spot on the offense. So we’ll adjust week-to-week, we’ll adjust year-to-year. Whatever it takes.”