Jaylen Harris’ first three seasons at Ohio State have been forgettable, but he could finally have the opportunity he needs to make an impact for the Buckeyes in 2020.
In his first three years in Columbus, Harris has caught just five passes for 54 yards. He’s never played more than 22 offensive snaps in a game, and nearly all of his snaps have come in the second half of blowout wins. Even in an offense that has consistently rotated at least five receivers throughout the past three years, Harris hasn’t been able to break into that rotation.
He’s never had a bigger opportunity to change that than he has going into his fourth season with the Buckeyes.
So far in his Ohio State career, Harris has been stuck just outside of the rotation at X receiver. Binjimen Victor and Austin Mack filled that rotation in 2017 and 2018. When Mack moved to the Z receiver spot last year, Harris was leaped in the pecking order by five-star freshman Garrett Wilson, who was simply too talented not to get immediate playing time.
This year, however, there’s a very real opening for playing time at the X position. Victor and Mack have both finished their Ohio State careers – both are now hoping to make the NFL’s New York Giants as undrafted rookies – while Wilson is tentatively set to move to slot receiver for his sophomore year.
If Wilson sticks inside, Harris just might be the frontrunner to start opposite Chris Olave outside.
That starting job certainly isn’t going to be handed to Harris. Julian Fleming, a five-star recruit like Wilson, is a strong candidate for an immediate spot in the rotation. Fellow freshman Gee Scott Jr. has the talent to earn his way onto the field right away, too. Either Olave or Jameson Williams could move from Z to X so they can both start and be on the field together.
Ryan Day has said the Buckeyes don’t want to “pigeonhole” receivers into specific spots and that their top six receivers, regardless of their preferred positions, are going to be the six who play. Harris, at minimum, has to prove he’s one of those six if he’s going to finally earn a bigger role.
Because Ohio State only had three practices before COVID-19 brought spring football to an early end, Harris hasn’t had a chance to prove that quite yet. Based on what Ohio State wide receivers coach Brian Hartline said about Harris during a teleconference with reporters a few weeks ago, though, it sounds like the fourth-year Buckeye could finally be on that trajectory.
“From December, as soon as we were done and moving on to the next year in early January, Jaylen Harris did a phenomenal job,” Hartline said. “He’s been a leader, he’s on our leadership council, he’s doing an excellent job of taking the group under his wing. And I’m really impressed by him.”
Harris ran with the first-team offense during Ohio State’s opening practice of the spring, and Victor predicted at the NFL Scouting Combine that Harris would play an expanded role for the Buckeyes this season. Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson also praised Harris’ development after the Buckeyes’ second practice of the spring.
“Jaylen Harris has had his best offseason,” Wilson said. “Really matured, been steady, worked hard, been on the front line, been the leader of that group.”
Given that Fleming is the third-highest-rated recruit to sign with the Buckeyes out of high school since 2000 (not including 2021 commit Jack Sawyer), according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, the possibility of Fleming becoming an immediate starter with Olave and Wilson certainly can’t be ruled out. That said, Ohio State typically prefers to bring freshmen along more gradually; while Wilson was in the rotation all of last season, he never started a game, and that was after he had a full spring in which he routinely drew praise for how well he performed.
The lack of spring practices and time away from campus increases the likelihood that Ohio State will need to lean on its veterans in 2020, especially early in the season, and Harris is now one of the elder statesmen in the receiving corps. Fellow fourth-year receiver Ellijah Gardiner, fifth-year senior Demario McCall and sixth-year senior C.J. Saunders (pending a waiver from the NCAA) are also veterans who could earn bigger roles, but Harris is the receiver among them who’s naturally suited to contribute at the X receiver position that is currently the most wide-open spot on the receiver depth chart.
“He’s been a leader, he’s on our leadership council, he’s doing an excellent job of taking the group under his wing. And I’m really impressed by him.”– Ohio State wide receivers coach Brian Hartline on Jaylen Harris
Harris hasn’t yet had a real opportunity to show what he can do in scarlet and gray, but the four-star recruit from Cleveland Heights is the biggest receiver on the team (6-foot-5, 215 pounds), giving him intriguing upside as a player who could create size mismatches on the outside. While he hasn’t yet seen regular playing time on offense, he did play in all 14 games last season on special teams, which is often a precursor to a bigger role at Ohio State.
Even though he wasn’t able to earn a spot in the rotation last year, Harris said he got bigger and stronger and learned how to fight through fatigue. He was disappointed that he didn’t get more playing time in 2019, but he still felt like he got better, putting him in position to make a run this year at the bigger role he’s been longing for.
“It’s been slow, but I’ve played my part and waiting on my name to get called, and I’m gonna be ready when that happens,” Harris told Eleven Warriors at media day before last season’s Fiesta Bowl.
Harris said then that he believed he would have a “huge opportunity” to earn playing time this season, but knew that in order to make that happen, he needed to be more consistent on the field.
“I just got to come in and try to outwork everybody in the room,” Harris said.
By showing Hartline and Wilson that he can be a leader in the receiver room, Harris has already checked one important box toward earning a bigger role this season, and if he can back that up with his performance on the field once the Buckeyes are able to practice again, the chance for Harris to finally have his breakthrough is within his grasp.