As Ohio State has prepared to play a season amid a pandemic where depth could be more important than ever, Ryan Day has said on multiple occasions that the Buckeyes are going to need all 120 of their players this season, including walk-ons.
Realistically, as long as the Buckeyes avoid losing a multitude of players at one position, most of those walk-ons still aren’t going to see significant playing time this year. In most cases, a walk-on playing a substantial role with the game on the line would be an indicator that Ohio State’s depth chart has been depleted at that position.
One walk-on who just might be making an actual push to climb the depth chart and earn some playing time this fall even if that doesn't happen, though, is Xavier Johnson.
Johnson, as you might remember if you follow recruiting closely, came to Ohio State with more qualifications than a typical walk-on. A three-star recruit who was ranked as the No. 44 overall prospect in the state of Ohio for the class of 2018, Johnson had offers from Iowa State, Cincinnati and a majority of MAC schools coming out of Cincinnati’s Summit Country Day School, but he chose to walk on with the Buckeyes instead.
Since he’s arrived at Ohio State, his first two years with the Buckeyes have been pretty typical for a walk-on. He’s already switched positions several times in his career, moving back and forth between running back and wide receiver and even spending some time on defense at cornerback, all while rarely seeing game action at any of those positions.
Going into his third season at Ohio State, though, Johnson has found a home at running back, and he’s made a real impression on running backs coach Tony Alford.
“He’s had an outstanding month-and-a-half, if you will, since we really started rolling again,” Alford said this week. “He’s a guy that’s littered all over the special teams. He’s extremely athletic … another guy who understands the routes and how to run routes and how he fits in patterns and things like that, and continues to impress our entire staff with the way he comes to work every single day, and he’s done a nice job.
“Now where that’ll go as far as reps and things like that, time will tell. But he’s done a nice job. I’m very pleased with him. I love the kid. He’s an extremely mature kid and takes care of his business. So I’m excited about the prospects for X.”
Alford said Johnson, along with fellow third-year sophomore Master Teague, has emerged as one of the vocal leaders in the running back room.
“X speaks up a lot,” Alford said. “His personality is lending itself to that, because he’s become more comfortable in our room, and he knows he’s gained a lot of respect from his teammates. Not just his coaches, but his teammates, and the respect of the guys. So he speaks up quite a bit.”
It’s not too common for a walk-on’s name to be brought up unprompted during an Ohio State press conference, and while Alford was asked directly about Johnson on Tuesday, head coach Ryan Day and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson have also mentioned his name in recent interviews when talking about the running backs, as well.
“Xavier Johnson’s done a really good job,” Day said during his press conference last week.
“He’s an extremely mature kid and takes care of his business. So I’m excited about the prospects for X.”– Tony Alford on Xavier Johnson
Johnson was a regular on special teams for the Buckeyes last season, appearing in all 14 games while lining up as a fullback on the kickoff return unit and also seeing time on the punt block/return team. That’s still probably where the vast majority of playing time will come this season, as there are at least three running backs – Teague, Trey Sermon and Steele Chambers – expected to be ahead of him on the depth chart right now.
If Johnson is to earn any role on Ohio State’s offense, it’s most likely to come in a situational capacity. Wilson has described him, along with Demario McCall, as a “hybrid guy” who can play both running back and receiver; whether such a hybrid role actually emerges in the Buckeyes’ offense this year, given that it hasn’t for McCall in recent years, is very uncertain.
But in a season where depth could be as crucial as it’s ever been, the Buckeyes are feeling good about their depth at running back right now, and Johnson’s development is a real reason for that, especially considering that Marcus Crowley is still on the mend from the torn ACL he suffered last season.
“We have more depth there than we’ve had in a long time,” Day said. “We have right now, we feel good about five of our guys … All five of those guys (Teague, Sermon, Johnson, Chambers and Miyan Williams) are doing a great job.”