It was the first question that made him pause.
Sophomore wide receiver Emeka Egbuka had fielded a plethora of questions from reporters after the second day of spring practice, a media session that he primarily used to laud his fellow teammates in the Ohio State wide receivers corps. But then, he was asked which receiver on the field was the fastest.
“The fastest?,” Egbuka said. “Oh, you might have to ask (Mickey Marotti). Check the tapes though. I'm up there. In terms of acceleration, I'm up there.”
Speed has always been in Egbuka’s repertoire, and was a good part of the reason the former five-star recruit was the No. 1 ranked wideout in the 2021 class. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound speedster got to show off his wheels in a limited capacity last season, being the primary backup to Jackson Smith-Njigba as Ohio State’s slot receiver.
In 2021, Egbuka had nine catches for 191 yards, including a season-long 85-yard reception against Akron. When Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson both opted out of the Rose Bowl, Egbuka made a few big plays in the Buckeyes’ win over Utah, catching three passes for 46 yards.
“I mean, last year was a great year for me,” Egbuka said. “I mean, I got to sit behind guys like Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, Jaxon and really just learn from them. And I know how great of careers they're gonna have in the NFL, and just to have those guys as my big brothers guiding me along the way was the best thing I took out of last year.”
He also was the Buckeyes’ primary kickoff return specialist for most of the season, and figures to be a good bet to retain that role in 2022 unless OSU wants to limit his usage if he sees exponentially more snaps on offense. Last season, Egbuka returned 20 kickoffs for 580 yards and came close to taking a few returns to the house. His longest return of the season was a 67-yard scamper during the Buckeyes’ win against Maryland, a game where he had 166 yards of return yardage on four kickoffs, but he couldn’t quite find paydirt.
“It's a hard thing to do,” Egbuka said of returning a kickoff the distance. “It's probably one of the harder things I've had to do because you just get past that first line of defenders and then there's 12 more waiting for you when you only thought there was 11 on the field. So you get to the 50-yard line and you realize you still got 50 more to go. So it's definitely one of the harder things to do but I'm up for the challenge and I'm glad they trusted me to put me back in that role.
“There's a couple (returns) I thought I was in the clear. Definitely going to make those into touchdowns this year. But yeah, I can't say enough about the blocking. That's the reason I got to those positions.”
With Olave and Wilson headed to the NFL, the Buckeyes will likely move Smith-Njigba outside for at least a good portion of the offensive snaps next year, leaving a prime opportunity for Egbuka to claim the starting slot receiver role when three wideouts are on the field. He isn’t taking anything for granted, though.
“I can't really speak about the opportunities or the depth chart,” Egbuka said. “Just know that everybody has the ability to do the most on the field. I mean you got guys like, everybody in the room, I can't name one that doesn't have the ability. So mixing around opportunities. The biggest thing is just being happy for everybody, not getting a sense of entitlement I guess. It's the opportunities and reps.”
While Brian Hartline told Egbuka backing up Smith-Njigba was the best option for him in 2021, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be playing slot receiver exclusively in his collegiate career. During his recruitment, Hartline told Egbuka, who lined up at outside receiver on a lot of plays for Steilacoom High School (Steilacoom, Washington), he’d likely play all over the field. Should the Buckeyes want to redeploy Smith-Njigba back in the slot, or even in the backfield as they did occasionally last season, Egbuka said he’ll be ready to line up wherever the Buckeyes need him.
EE back in business .. #TBF— Emeka Egbuka (@emeka_egbuka) March 8, 2022
“Developing those slot skill sets helped me launch into this year, so I'll be able to come into this year playing all three positions,” Egbuka said. “I feel really confident at all three positions. There were no missed assignments during practice. So I mean, just constantly learning, constantly growing and with the help of guys like Marvin and the help of guys like Jaxon and Julian, everybody. Everybody in the wide receiver room is a wide receiver No. 1 and that's what a lot of people don't get and that's why Zone 6 is so great.”
Egbuka added playing slot receiver compared to outside receiver require very different skillsets.
“At the slot, you got to make a lot of second-level releases,” he said. “There's not guys like all up in your face. They're at five yards, 10 yards and you got to be able to clear their hands, run by them, stack them. And on the outside, you got guys right in your face. You got to make a quick move and you gotta get down the field quick. You don't got a lot of time to waste, especially with the college pass rush and stuff like that.”
With his role seemingly set to expand on offense in 2022, Egubka said he’s ready for whatever responsibilities the Buckeyes throw his way.