Despite having a roster loaded with wide receivers who were highly touted recruits out of high school, Ohio State has mostly relied on just two wide receivers – Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson – to be its primary targets in the passing game this season.
In Ohio State’s five regular-season games, Wilson caught 34 passes for 572 yards and five touchdowns, Olave caught 36 passes for 528 yards and five touchdowns and no other wide receiver had more than six receptions, 78 receiving yards or one touchdown.
In Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game against Northwestern, however, the Buckeyes are going to need some of their other wide receivers to step up. Olave is among the players who are unavailable to play on Saturday following more positive COVID-19 tests within the program, opening the door for some of the Buckeyes’ less proven pass-catchers to play bigger roles in the offense.
There’s no denying the loss of Olave is a significant hit to Ohio State’s offense for Saturday’s game, and any other games he might miss, as he’s one of their three biggest offensive stars along with Wilson and Justin Fields. He’s the Buckeyes’ most experienced receiver, a deep threat who stretches the field and has made big plays all year long and is also a regular on special teams.
But there’s also reason to expect Ohio State’s other wide receivers to make plays in his absence, considering the hype that came with most of their arrivals in Columbus.
Ohio State has seven receivers on its roster who were top-100 overall prospects in their respective recruiting classes, and that doesn’t even include Olave. It does include Wilson and fellow sophomore Jameson Williams, redshirt sophomore Kamryn Babb and the freshman trio of Julian Fleming, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Gee Scott Jr. and Mookie Cooper.
Smith-Njigba, who ranks among third Ohio State wide receivers this season with six catches, is also unavailable for Saturday’s game, depriving the Buckeyes of one of the receivers who would have a top option to step up in his place. Any of those other receivers, though, could potentially be candidates to make a bigger impact with Olave sidelined.
Williams is the receiver who probably should be expected to make the biggest jump in Olave’s absence, as he’s been a starter for the Buckeyes in three-receiver sets and has played the third-most snaps among all Ohio State receivers this year. He hasn’t yet emerged as a consistent playmaker for Ohio State, catching just five passes for 78 yards and a touchdown this season, but the speedster from St. Louis was expected to be an impact player coming into the season and does not lack big-play potential.
Fleming is also likely to play the biggest role of his young Ohio State career to date on Saturday, as he’s already been rotating with Olave at Z receiver for most of the season and is the likely candidate to play most of the snaps along with Wilson and Williams in three-receiver formations against Northwestern. He has just three catches for 21 yards so far as a Buckeye, but he was the No. 1 receiver in the 2020 recruiting class for a reason, and now would be a good time for him to break through as a pass-catching playmaker.
Assuming Wilson, Williams and Fleming play the majority of snaps on Saturday, Scott and Babb – the only other full-time wide receivers who have played offensive snaps this year – are likely the top candidates to also see some snaps in the rotation off the bench, though both of them are still seeking their first career catches at Ohio State. Demario McCall could also see increased playing time at slot receiver, where Wilson will likely play the vast majority of snaps on Saturday but Smith-Njigba has also rotated in some this year.
Wilson is certainly likely to be Fields’ go-to target on Saturday, and the Buckeyes know they can count on him to make plays. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ohio State lean heavily on two-tight end sets in Saturday’s game, perhaps making this an opportunity for Jeremy Ruckert and Luke Farrell to see increased usage as receivers in the passing game.
But if Ohio State’s other wide receivers don’t step up and make more plays on Saturday, that would be a disappointment considering how many of them have been hyped as potential future stars.
Fields, for one, has expressed confidence in Ohio State’s other wide receivers even though he’s mostly thrown to Olave and Wilson this year.
“I feel like I’m comfortable with all the receivers,” Fields said in November. “They’re all great receivers, or they wouldn’t be at Ohio State.”
Ohio State would certainly prefer to have Olave available as it plays for its fourth straight Big Ten championship on Saturday, but his unavailability does create an opportunity for other wide receivers to break through as playmakers, which would be great for the Buckeyes to see not only for the remainder of this season but also going into next season, when they could be without Olave permanently if he decides to enter the 2021 NFL draft.