Garrett Wilson is quick to point out he didn’t ask for this. He’d have felt content to stay an outside wide receiver in Ohio State’s offense as he enters a pivotal sophomore season.
“It wasn't something I was looking forward to. It was just whatever coach wanted me to do,” Wilson said on Tuesday. “Whatever's best for the team, I was able to do that.”
Brian Hartline was the one who originally tabbed Wilson as the team’s next slot wide receiver when K.J. Hill wrapped up his final collegiate season nine months ago. The third-year wideout coach began thinking about Wilson in the slot during the 2019 season but had no reason to make any changes at the time due to the presence of Hill and need for the then-freshman receiver to stick on the outside.
But in the spring, Hartline jumped at the opportunity to see Wilson inside.
He liked enough of what he saw in the limited time allowed that Wilson remains lined up to start in the slot when the season kicks off at home against Nebraska on Oct. 24. The unconventional offseason “probably did have an effect” on Wilson’s transition to the slot, Hartline said, though he noted the second-year receiver has “done a very good job” of not letting his inexperience at the position show up.
The plan at slot not changing, even with a cut-short spring and socially distant summer, is a testament to just how much Hartline and Ryan Day believe receivers like Wilson are both the present and future in the slot for the Buckeyes. The coaches no longer seek someone at the position in the mold of Percy Harvin – a multi-faceted talent who lines up all over the field to carry the ball and catch passes. Rather, they want a true receiver.
“I think that position, more than anything, is developing more and more into a wide receiver a position and is not necessarily a hybrid kind of thing to it,” Hartline said. “It's really you need to be a great wide receiver first. I think that Garrett being a smart, savvy, he's got a lot of good wiggle to him when it comes to releases and operating space, I think he's a great fit for that space.”
In there, too, Wilson could see a drastic increase in the number of balls thrown his way. Hartline didn’t outright say that played a big role in the decision-making process to put him inside, but it couldn’t have hurt.
Since Ryan Day arrived at Ohio State ahead of the 2017 season, slot receivers have led the team in receptions every single year. In two of the seasons, the top two in catches primarily played out of the slot.
In 2017, K.J. Hill secured a team-high 56 receptions and Parris Campbell was second with 40 catches. Campbell led the Buckeyes the next year with 90 catches, and Hill was just behind by reeling in 70 passes. Then in 2019 with Justin Fields taking snaps, Hill caught 57 balls, the most by anyone at Ohio State.
Wilson, by shifting inside, will see a similar workload to the former slot wideouts, including Hill whom he believes is “as good a slot as it gets.” He caught 30 passes for 423 yards and five touchdowns as a true freshman last fall, and as long as the plans don’t change, those numbers could potentially double – even when accounting for a shortened season.
“I'm definitely excited to be in the slot, get a little bit more balls,” Wilson said.
He has every reason to feel that way.
Based on the palpable enthusiasm when Day first talked about Wilson as an inside receiver in March and Hartline’s insistence of keeping him in the slot, they have big plans for him. Wilson, the way Hartline explains it, is the new-age slot wideout in Ohio State’s offense who turns into a matchup nightmare for defenses. He might follow Campbell and Hill as the next slot receiver to lead the team in targets and catches.
“I think, again, just what do you want to do there defensively?” Hartline said. “Who do you want to put on him? Do you want to put a linebacker in there and have him have to guard him? Or do you want to bring a nickel player in and then you get to say you're tougher than him when running the football and being able to cover him? It's just a different animal. I think it provides a game plan advantage for us.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to our ability to execute and really operate at a high level with consistency. I think it provides something. But how much? Time will tell.”
Both Wilson and Hartline, too, brought up the idea that lining up in the slot can benefit him beyond just this year. Wilson says he loves to watch Green Bay Packers star receiver Davante Adams win individual matchups from both the inside and outside.
“Being able to have that versatility, that's something I want to be able to bring to the table,” Wilson said.
Hartline completely agrees, saying, “I think that at the end of the day, being versatile will be the most important. His ability to be outside for a full year last year then move inside this year gives him a skillset and a general understanding of the offense to do either.”
It should help Wilson moving forward beyond just this year.
Moving from outside to inside, though, isn’t as simple as some might think. Hartline said those in the slot “more than maybe any other position, may be asked to do more things.” Wilson mentioned he’s had to watch a “lot more film” to understand coverages and read defenses before plays start since as an inside receiver he’ll have to do things such as finding soft spots in zones rather than just winning one-on-one matchups.
The process, while extensive, should pay off once Ohio State gets onto the field. Hartline impressed the importance of having a “dynamic” receiver in the slot, and Wilson is that guy. He showcased his talent on multiple occasions in 2019, including with a final leaping sideline catch in the first quarter of the Fiesta Bowl, and it should be on display more than ever before out of the slot.
“Proud of where he's at,” Hartline said. “He knows he's got to keep pushing further. A lot of more nuances being inside. But I think he's handled it pretty good job.”