The history of Ohio State football is littered with all-time greats. Legendary players. Phenoms on the field. The list of incredible talents who have come through the program, if you start to name names, feels endless.
Chris Olave, given his path and production, has a chance to go down as one of the very best to ever suit up for the Buckeyes.
The fourth-year wide receiver, who is nearing the start of what should be his final season of college football, barely made it into Ohio State’s 2018 recruiting class several years ago. As luck would have it, he found a spot. The rest, as they say, is history.
We’re here today to retrace that history, and we’re beginning all the way back in 2017 when he first appeared on the Buckeyes radar. Here’s how Olave arrived at the brink of legendary status.
A Chance Viewing By Ryan Day
By this point, the story of how Day found Olave has been told dozens of times, yet the importance of it is undeniable. Then a position coach and co-offensive coordinator, Day traveled to southern California in the spring of 2017 to see a four-star quarterback named Jack Tuttle toss the ball around. The guy catching passes, a skinny soon-to-be junior at Mission Hills High School, caught his eye, though. His head coach, Chris Hauser, introduced him to Day after the workout. Later that year, in October to be exact, the Buckeyes extended a scholarship offer to Olave.
At the time, Ohio State felt fairly confident in the trio of wide receivers it held commitments from in the 2018 recruiting class: Kamryn Babb, Cameron Brown and L’Christian Smith. The coaches weren’t exactly predicting Babb would battle leg injuries, Brown would move to cornerback and Smith would transfer. But they pursued Olave – a three-star recruit – anyway, holding off a late push from UCLA. On Jan 28, 2018, he announced his commitment to Ohio State with his high school head coach saying “he has all of the tools to be a great college receiver.”
As a late take who was a three-star recruit and the third-lowest-rated signee in his recruiting class, Olave wasn’t expected to do anything of note as a true freshman. But he positioned himself well enough behind the scenes that when Austin Mack went down with an October injury, he was the one who entered the wide receiver rotation. Johnnie Dixon said in the preseason that he hadn’t “seen a guy come in like that yet,” telling reporters that he was “a dude that turned everybody’s heads.”
Olave matched his season-long total up to this point with two receptions in a Nov. 10 win at Michigan State. He reeled in a 25-yard deep slant and a 16-yard curl to show just a glimpse of what was to come. Urban Meyer during the week leading up to the game: “Boy, he’s going to be good. He’s way ahead of schedule.”
A Coming-Out Game
Coming into the 2018 regular season finale, Olave had caught five passes without scoring all year. Few knew his name. He was anonymous in the national landscape. But on that day in Ohio Stadium, he snagged a pair of 24-yard touchdowns and blocked a punt in the unforgettable 62-39 blowout of Michigan, a game in which the Buckeyes entered as the underdog. Teammates gushed about him in the aftermath. Olave: “I kind of dreamed for this my whole life. Actually being put in the spotlight, it's unreal.” No matter what else happened in Olave’s career, his performance ensured that he’d be remembered forever in The Game’s history.
Chris Olave's breakout performance against Michigan was NEXT. LEVEL.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 25, 2018
( @MBUSA) pic.twitter.com/8i7URShxqL
A Star Turn
Olave wasted no time making himself a stalwart in Ohio State’s offense. His late-season breakout translated immediately to the following season with him scoring four times and accruing 228 receiving yards in the first four games of his sophomore year. Olave both blocked a punt and caught a touchdown (sound familiar?) to help beat Indiana in Week 3 of the 2019 season with Tuttle on the opposing sideline. The next week, he scored twice against Miami (Ohio). Justin Fields after beating the Hoosiers: “What is there not to like about him?” A month into his second collegiate season, it was quickly becoming clear that he’d be a legitimate star at Ohio State.
A Go-To Downfield Threat
Olave’s ascent continued to ramp up as the 2019 season progressed. Across the last six games of the regular season, he pulled in seven touchdowns, including four in ranked matchups with Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan. In all but one of those six showdowns, he had individual receptions of 20-plus yards, turning into a terror of a deep threat. Oh, and the special teams standout recovered an onside kick versus Maryland. At this point, his career trajectory was pointed straight upward.
The moment that will live in infamy left Olave on one knee in the end zone, knowing both Ohio State’s season and its national title hopes had been eliminated because of a miscommunication between him and his Heisman Trophy finalist of a quarterback. Fields uncorked a fastball just as Olave, unexpectedly to him, broke off his route and turned around. Nolan Turner picked it off. Game over. Olave blamed it on himself while talking through tears sitting in his locker, calling his mid-play decision a “mistake” and the “worst feeling in the world.”
Olave, by this time a household name in college football, spent the 2020 offseason with all eyes on him. Expectations were through the roof. K.J. Hill said he had “better be” the best wide receiver in college football. Brian Hartline said he’s “very motivated” to become the “best player in the country. He showed up in way-too-early 2021 NFL mock drafts.
A Dynamic Duo
All the preseason hype proved correct in the fall when Olave put together an outstanding regular season, accruing five touchdowns and more than 100 receiving yards in four of the five games. He set career-highs of 10 catches and 139 yards in the finale at Michigan State. Along with Garrett Wilson, he helped give Ohio State a ridiculously talented duo who received the vast majority of targets among wideouts. Big Ten opponents had few answers for them.
A Missed Game
Olave’s magical junior season faced a hurdle when he was ruled out of the Big Ten championship game due to the COVID-19 protocols. A brutal loss for both him and his Ohio State team. Luckily for them, though, they avoided a worse outcome and topped Northwestern to capture the conference title. The next question: Would Olave be back in time for the College Football Playoff? As it turns out – perhaps aided by the Big Ten’s reduction of the return-to-play game requirement – he’d ultimately be able to return for bowl season.
A Revenge Game
Everything built up to this. Olave vs. Clemson, the team his error had come against one year prior. This time, the third-year wide receiver got the better of the Tigers again and again. He racked up 132 yards and two touchdowns on six receptions. A long time coming. And this time, it sent his Buckeyes to the national championship game. Day speaking after the win: “One of the more clutch players, I think, as a receiver in maybe the history of Ohio State football when you think back on it. Wow, what a player he is.”
Ohio State WR Chris Olave had a redeeming night after the heartbreaking loss to Clemson in 2019— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) January 2, 2021
132 Rec Yds
2 TDs pic.twitter.com/a6tLJku7Rf
A Brutal Loss
If you wanted a storybook ending, it would have included Ohio State beating Alabama to win the national championship a year after Olave’s mistake ended his team’s season. That...is not what happened. Olave caught eight passes for 69 yards, his second-fewest of the season, in what turned into a rout. The Crimson Tide sent him into the offseason on the wrong side of a 52-24 shellacking.
An Unexpected Return
The odds were stacked against Olave staying in school. NFL mock drafts slotted him as a likely late first-round draft pick, he had just played in the College Football Playoff in back-to-back years and he exacted revenge on Clemson. Yet, here he is, in school for one more go-round in Columbus. Olave wasn’t ready to give up college football. In 2021, he decided, he’ll run it back one more time.
“Not going to the NFL, it was just something I wanted to be back, really,” Olave said earlier this year. “After the national championship, I had that terrible feeling. I’m a competitor, so after that national championship, I had a terrible feeling in my stomach. I just didn’t want to leave college like that. And growing up dreaming, I always wanted to win a national championship, I always wanted to do everything in college and go to the NFL, so I felt like we had unfinished business. I believe in the quarterback play, I believe in Coach Day, I believe in the program so I wanted to do another year to try to win a national championship and try to do all those things.”