If it’s up to Brian Hartline, we won’t know what Ohio State’s wide receiver rotation will look like until the Buckeyes play their first game on Oct. 24.
Throughout his tenure as Ohio State's wide receivers coach, Hartline has never been one to divulge much information about what his depth chart might look like, and this preseason – when there’s more mystery surrounding the depth chart than ever – is no different.
“Am I supposed to do that?” Hartline said Tuesday when asked if he could give a rundown of where his receivers are lining up. “I kind of like that no one knows right now.”
Instead of getting into specifics about which receivers are lining up at X, Z and H, Hartline simply said that his players are “cross-training” and “getting reps at multiple positions.” He preaches versatility to his players, anyway, so he wants them all to be prepared to play at multiple receiver spots.
That doesn’t change the fact, however, that Hartline and the rest of Ohio State’s coaching staff could have to make some challenging decisions over the next few weeks in determining what their wide receiver rotation will look like for at least the start of the season.
Right now, there are only two certainties about the receiver rotation: Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson will both be starters, with Wilson expected to man the slot after rotating at X last year. Jameson Williams looks like a sure bet to see regular playing time at receiver, too, but whether he’ll start opposite Olave or rotate in off the bench remains unknown.
If Williams establishes himself alongside Olave and Wilson as one of the Buckeyes’ top three receivers, Hartline says he wouldn’t have any qualms about moving either Olave or Williams from Z to X to get them all on the field together.
“I have no issues moving anybody to any position if it gets the right people on the field,” Hartline said. “No qualms with moving anybody anywhere if they’re able to play at a high capacity, a high level, at different spots.”
Hartline doesn’t need to force position changes just to get players on the field, though, because Ohio State still plans to rotate multiple wide receivers at each spot. And the Buckeyes have plenty of options to choose from to fill out their rotation.
“We’re always trying to be at least two-deep if not more,” Hartline said. “I’d argue that we’d probably be closer to three-deep than ever.”
In Jaylen Harris, Ellijah Gardiner, Kamryn Babb and Demario McCall, the Buckeyes have four upperclassman receivers on scholarship who are still vying to earn the first regular playing time of their careers. But they also have a talented quartet of freshmen in Julian Fleming, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Gee Scott Jr. and Mookie Cooper who are all real candidates to be immediate contributors, leaving Hartline with a choice to make between veterans who have paid their dues and newcomers with star potential.
Ultimately, Hartline’s decisions in building his rotation – which will come with consultation from Ryan Day, Kevin Wilson and the rest of the offensive coaching staff – should be guided by a simple tenet: “The best players play.”
“We’re always trying to find a way to get the best players on the field,” Hartline said. “At the end of the day, film doesn’t lie. Guys that earn it, they earn it. Nothing’s given. And we’ll kind of keep approaching it that way.”
Who are those best players outside of Olave, Wilson and Williams? That depends in part on whether Harris, Gardiner or McCall can make a late-career push to demonstrate they can be an impact player, and in part on Babb’s health after he missed his first two seasons at Ohio State with knee injuries, but it might depend most on just how ready to play the four freshmen are – and there’s positive signs on that front, as Smith-Njigba, Scott and Fleming have each already lost their black stripes, while Cooper, Hartline said, “is much further along than I, frankly, anticipated.”
The key for any of those players to prove they belong in the rotation, according to Hartline, will be consistent performance on the practice field and once the games begin – not only in catching passes and running routes, but also in doing the little things well, like blocking on running plays and contributing on special teams.
“I think the biggest thing that we’re looking for, for guys to be on the field, is consistency,” Hartline said. “I think that consistency is more important than ever. I think the ability to not make silly mistakes as we see on Saturdays and Sundays is more prevalent than ever. So I think guys that are the most consistent at this point will probably see themselves on the field a lot more and being worked in in certain ways.”
“At the end of the day, film doesn’t lie. Guys that earn it, they earn it. Nothing’s given.”– Brian Hartline on the competition for playing time at wide receiver
Cooper and McCall seem most likely to contribute at the H/slot position if they make the rotation, while Smith-Njigba could factor in either inside or outside. The others are more likely to contribute at one of the two outside receiver spots. One way or another, Hartline’s job is to determine the best possible way to rotate his receivers that gets his best players on the field while keeping them fresh and putting them in the positions where they can help the team most.
Given the realities of this season, though – where any player at any time could miss three games if he tests positive for COVID-19 – Hartline knows that having tough decisions to make about who belongs in the rotation is a good problem to have, as he knows it’s crucial for the Buckeyes to have depth and contingency plans in place if any of their top players become unable to play.
“I can’t emphasize enough, being able to play multiple roles and understand concepts, not just your position, will be very important this year, probably more than ever,” Hartline said. “So I think at the end of the day, a lot of the cream will rise with the crop, and you have to be able to play multiple positions no matter where on the field.”