Ohio State Pass Catchers Primed to Step Up with Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave and Jeremy Ruckert Off to the NFL

By Chris Lauderback on February 22, 2022 at 10:10 am
Emeka Egbuka
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Most Ohio State fans dry heaved last week when athletic director Gene Smith said he'd prefer the Buckeyes play a CFP "home" game in a domed stadium like Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis or Ford Field in Detroit. 

Smith cited the hard ground on a cold outdoor field and winter weather which irked fans desperately wanting to see a school like Alabama forced to deal with the seasonal elements in Columbus. 

What he should've flatly said was he wants Ohio State to play indoors because Ryan Day's offense is predicated on throwing the ball two-thirds of the time and playing in shitty weather compromises the Buckeyes' chances to win no matter what the conditions might do to an opponent unfamiliar with cold, wind and precipitation. 

Heading into the 2022 season, the Buckeyes might have their most devastating aerial attack yet. And that's saying something after the 2021 edition saw quarterback C.J. Stroud break single-season school records for completion percentage (71.9%), passer rating (186.6) and passing yards per game (369.6) while throwing to the most elite trio of receivers in school history. 

With Stroud finding his way as a first-year starter, veteran wideouts Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave helped him along while also giving time for Jaxon Smith-Njigba to evolve as a lethal threat from the slot. 

Wilson posted 70 catches for 1,058 yards and 12 scores while Olave added 65 grabs for 936 yards and 13 touchdowns. Had Olave played in the Rose Bowl, there's no doubt he would've reached the 1,000-yard mark. 

Of course, Smith-Njigba returns this fall for the Buckeyes but with Wilson, Olave and tight end Jeremy Ruckert (26 for 309) off to the NFL Draft, among others, Day and Brian Hartline must develop pass catchers in a way that lets them replace 48% of the team's receptions and yards, and 61% of the receiving touchdowns, most of which the trio takes with them to the next stage of their careers. 

2022 167 48% 2,356 48% 26 61%
2021 28 18% 326 16% 3 14%
2020 144 53% 1,837 50% 21 44%
2019 188 47% 2,545 50% 24 47%
2018 8 3% 45 1% 0 0%
2017 145 59% 1,700 61% 19 73%
2016 165 81% 1,970 80% 17 89%
2015 66 25% 1,295 35% 18 43%
2014 134 56% 1,636 57% 23 61%
2013 25 16% 346 16% 4 24%
2012 32 26% 348 21% 2 11%

Even with Wilson and Olave likely to be chosen as first round picks in the upcoming draft, Smith-Njigba emerged as Ohio State's most dominant receiver, recording school records in both receptions (95) and receiving yards (1,606) with nine touchdowns. 

Smith-Njigba was solid in his first eight games of the 2021 slate, posting 35 grabs for 648 yards and three touchdowns. He didn't have a 10-catch game and just two 100+ yard games during that stretch before exploding. 

Over the final five contests, JSN hauled in a ridiculous 60 balls for 958 yards and six scores as he went for 10 catches or more in four games and for over 100 yards receiving in each, including a school-record 347 in the Rose Bowl. 

With that production, it seems like Day will keep Smith-Njigba in the slot, at least most of the time, but he could line up all over the field at times this fall. 

Alongside JSN, the trio of Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming figure to see the most reps. 

Egbuka, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound sophomore, was 247's No. 10 player in the 2021 class and last year he mostly showed out on special teams, serving as one the nation's best kickoff return men. As a receiver, his 21.2 yards per catch was the best on the team though his sample-size was small at nine catches for 191 yards including 3-for-46 against Utah. 

If I had to bet on it, I'd take Egbuka to be Ohio State's second-leading receiver this fall but if that doesn't pan out, it'll likely be because Harrison Jr. stepped up in spades. 

Harrison, a 6-foot-3, 205-pounder, was 247's No. 97 prospect in the 2021 class and with reps scarce last year, he managed 11 catches for 139 yards but it was his Rose Bowl performance that caught the eye of many. With Olave and Wilson sitting out versus Utah, Harrison Jr. posted six grabs for 71 yards and three touchdowns. 

Finally, Fleming, the No. 3 prospect in 247's 2020 class rankings, enters his junior season with still much to prove after injury-riddled seasons to this point. He managed five catches for 35 yards against the Utes but through two seasons in Columbus, the 6-foot-2, 207-pounder has just 19 total catches for 160 yards and a touchdown. With the lack of experience behind Smith-Njigba, you know Day and Hartline would love to see him stay healthy give Ohio State meaningful production. 

And while inexperience is an issue further down the projected depth chart, there's no lack of blue chip talent. 

Sophomore Jayden Ballard will likely be Harrison's main backup at the X assuming he can hold off any of four different true freshmen looking to make an impact. Ballard was the 99th-highest ranked recruit in 247's 2021 rankings and played just 34 snaps last season. 

As for those four newcomers, two are more likely slot-types in Kyion Grayes (No. 88 player in 2022 rankings) and Kaleb Brown (No. 79). On the outside, Caleb Burton (No. 132) and Kojo Antwi (No. 132) will look to make some noise. 

Replacing Ruckert at tight end presents more wildcards than on the outside now that Cade Stover has converted to a full-time linebacker role after coming up big against Utah.

The assumption is Mitch Rossi, a tight end / fullback last season, will get first crack despite his former walk-on status. Rossi saw 143 snaps in 2021 posting four grabs for 28 yards and a touchdown. Joe Royer and Gee Scott Jr. would love to be in the mix after both played less than 60 snaps last year. With all the talent at receiver and even Trey Henderson as a pass catcher out of the backfield, it feels like the tight end who plays the most snaps will be the best blocker out of the bunch, not the best set of hands. 

Even though the tight end position could be up in the air for awhile, with all that talent at receiver, it feels like replacing nearly half of last year's passing game production won't be too tall a task for Day, Stroud and Hartline. 

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