Ohio State’s four wide receivers from the recruiting class of 2020 begin their careers in Columbus as one of the most highly touted position groups in any college football recruiting class ever.
Julian Fleming, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Gee Scott Jr. and Mookie Cooper are all ranked among the top 100 overall prospects in the entire class of 2020. It’s not hyperbole to say that any of them has the skill set to be a future star for Ohio State, and all of them have a real chance to earn legitimate playing time in their first seasons as Buckeyes.
All of them were dominant players in high school and each of them has the tools to potentially be an elite playmaker in college, which is why they were all top targets in the class of 2020 for Ohio State wide receivers Brian Hartline, who earned 247Sports’ National Recruiter of the Year honors for landing them all.
Their accomplishments as teenagers and lofty recruiting rankings aren’t going to guarantee them playing time at Ohio State, though. With each other to compete against as well as all of the Buckeyes’ returning receivers, they have to prove themselves all over again in order to earn their way into the rotation.
“All the stars are gone, all the rankings are gone, everything like that,” Fleming said last week in his first interview since arriving at Ohio State. “It's starting from scratch, you just got to build your way up and you got to earn everything.”
While they’ll take the field for their first spring practices as Buckeyes on March 2, the process of proving themselves has already started in winter workouts, including mat drills this past week. Hartline, among others, has been encouraging them to approach every workout and every meeting as an opportunity to demonstrate they belong on the depth chart.
“Coach Hart tells us all the time, if you see certain stuff older guys don’t do, that’s your green light to go do that,” Cooper said. “Because everybody knows, our receiver room’s big, but you just gotta do what other people don’t. That’s going to be your key to getting on the field.”
The competition to earn a spot in the receiver rotation this spring and summer will be intense. With Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jameson Williams expected to lead the rotation, there will be three other spots up for grabs, but there will be a multitude of veterans trying to seize those spots as well, including Jaelen Gill, Jaylen Harris, Ellijah Gardiner and Kamryn Babb. C.J. Saunders will also be a candidate for playing time if he receives a sixth year of eligibility, but he is still waiting for his request to be approved or denied by the NCAA.
Ryan Day made it clear last week, though, that the door is open for the newcomers to come in and beat out the veterans with their performance in practice.
“I mean, it's not like we're coming back with five or six returning starters like we have in the last couple of years,” Day said. “That's a huge emphasis point. So Brian’s got his hands full this spring, making sure that we get guys ready to go.”
While the four early enrollee freshmen are battling with each other to move up the pecking order in Ohio State’s receiving corps – specifically, Fleming and Scott will be competing for playing time at outside receiver, while Smith-Njigba and Cooper will be competing in the slot – they believe that competition is making them better and will ultimately benefit all of them in the long run.
“We all have that competitive spirit inside of us,” Smith-Njigba said. “I see Gee do something, I want to do it better. Same thing as Gee with me or Julian or Mookie. We all have that competitive spirit, and it’s all just going to make us better.”
Although they are all trying to outperform each other in workouts and will soon be trying to do the same on the practice field, they don’t view each other as adversaries. They’ve all been friends since before they even arrived at Ohio State, so they want to see each other succeed, as well.
“It’s great, because we’re always pushing each other,” Scott said. “It’s not like a, ‘I’ve got to be better than you’ or ‘I got to out-beat you,’ it’s more like, ‘Let’s all grow together. Let’s continue to get better together.’ And so, when you kind of have that culture in a receiver room, good things usually happen.”
Each of the four receivers bring their own strengths to the table – Fleming and Smith-Njigba are five-star prospects who can do just about everything, but Scott also stands out for his route-running ability as a big, physical receiver while Cooper has explosive speed and ability to make defenders miss – and if they all develop up to expectations, they could all be excellent complements to each other over the course of their Ohio State careers.
“None of us are really the same,” Cooper said. “You can expect different things out of all of us. But one thing you can expect from all of us is we all work hard. We all have been grinding. We all have been learning plays together. We all help each other out.”
Some of them will likely have to wait their turn before their chance to make a bigger impact comes in future seasons, and they understand that. After all, they chose to play together and join one of the most talented receiver rooms in the country over other schools where they probably would have been on the fast track to playing time. So while they all want to get on the field as soon as they can, they can also see the big picture.
“Nobody’s scared of competition, and nobody’s scared to outwork the other person,” Cooper said. “Everybody’s working, pushing for their goals, but at the end of the day, we’re all still working together for one goal.”
Every one of them believes they are capable of contributing early, and they’re going to work as hard as they can to make that happen. There might not be enough playing time with the first-team offense to go around for all of them in 2020, but they still all have a chance to make the team better as freshmen by attacking whatever roles they are asked to play.
“My real goal is just to contribute to the team in whichever way I can,” Scott said. “Whether that’s scoring 10 touchdowns or that’s just being on scout team and helping the starters win. Whatever it is.”
“Nobody’s scared of competition, and nobody’s scared to outwork the other person.” – Mookie Cooper on Ohio State's four freshman wide receivers
Fleming, Smith-Njigba, Scott and Cooper could all be great receivers individually, but together, they have the potential to become something truly special. And that’s what they want their legacy to be by the time their Ohio State careers are over.
“That's definitely one of the first things we always talk about,” Smith-Njigba said. “Even before coming here, we told each other we wanted to be the best to ever come through as a unit.
“We all just push each other and we're all just trying to be great, and this is the best program to be at to do that.”