Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave set a new standard for wide receiver excellence at Ohio State in 2021. With the talent Brian Hartline is assembling in Columbus, last season might just be the beginning of Ohio State’s emergence as “WRU.”
Ohio State’s starting trio of receivers last season was, by just about any measure, the best lineup of receivers the Buckeyes have ever had. Smith-Njigba broke Ohio State’s single-season and single-game records for receptions and receiving yards. Wilson and Smith-Njigba became the first pair of Ohio State receivers to ever surpass 1,000 yards in the same season.
Olave likely would have joined them if he had played in the Rose Bowl. Still, his 936 receiving yards are the 15th-most by a Buckeye receiver in a single season; only one other Ohio State receiver in the past decade (Parris Campbell in 2018) had more. The only other season that has produced even two of the top 15 receiving seasons in Ohio State history was 1997 when Dee Miller had 981 receiving yards and David Boston had 970 receiving yards.
Collectively, Ohio State’s top three receivers combined to catch 230 passes for 3,600 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2021. Wilson and Olave both earned first-team All-American honors from different organizations and went on to be selected in the top 11 picks of the 2022 NFL draft, even though neither of them was even the Buckeyes’ most productive wideout last year.
Those three receivers know they were a part of something spectacular in 2021. Yet they still believe the best is yet to come for Ohio State’s receiving corps.
“Every year, we got guys coming in, pushing the standard up,” Wilson said in April after he was drafted by the New York Jets. “This past year it was Marvin Harrison Jr. and Jaxon the year before that and it gets better every year, so Coach Hart’s got something really, really special going on there, and it’s just now getting started, for real. They got some dudes over there.”
While Wilson and Olave leave undeniably big shoes to fill, the Buckeyes’ wide receiver room is still loaded with talent. Smith-Njigba is the proven star like Olave and Wilson were entering last season, yet Harrison, Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming each have the potential to emerge as the Buckeyes’ next star wideout this year. “Route Man Marv” was exceptional in the Rose Bowl, catching three touchdowns against Utah in his first game as a starter, while Fleming and Egbuka are the two highest-rated wide receiver recruits (excluding Ted Ginn Jr., who was initially recruited as a cornerback) Ohio State has ever signed.
There’s plenty of talent behind them, too, as redshirt freshman Jayden Ballard was a top-100 recruit in the class of 2021 and Kyion Grayes, Kaleb Brown, Caleb Burton and Kojo Antwi were all among the top 151 prospects in the 2022 class. Add in Kamryn Babb, and Ohio State has 10 scholarship receivers on its 2022 roster who were all rated as four- or five-star recruits out of high school.
“Coach Hart’s got something really, really special going on there, and it’s just now getting started, for real.”– Garrett Wilson on Ohio State’s future at wide receiver
And there’s going to be even more talent coming in behind them. Five-star wide receiver Carnell Tate’s commitment to Ohio State’s 2023 class on Monday made sure of that. The Buckeyes are also viewed as the clear frontrunner to land fellow five-star receiver Brandon Inniss, and Tate’s commitment only helps Ohio State’s chances of landing his 7-on-7 teammate. (Update: Brandon Inniss committed to Ohio State on Tuesday.)
Add in Noah Rogers, and Ohio State could realistically land commitments from three receivers who are currently ranked among the top 50 overall prospects in the 2023 class. Bryson Rodgers is currently the lowest-ranked wide receiver commit of the Brian Hartline era, but he made the case that he should be ranked higher than he is (currently 270th in 247Sports’ composite rankings) with his dominant performance at the OT7 7-on-7 tournament earlier this month.
#OhioState commit @IBryson13 scored 4 TDs on day 2, and hes off to another great start on day 3 at the @overtime OT7.— ChadSimmons (@ChadSimmons_) June 12, 2022
+ + @On3Recruits @LettermenRow @SpencerHolbrook pic.twitter.com/EeQrV7sIyD
Ohio State has also already built up a strong rapport with several top wide receivers in the 2024 class, including Florida five-stars Jeremiah Smith and Joshisa Trader – who play on the same 7-on-7 team (South Florida Express) as Tate and Inniss – and fellow top-100 prospect Tyseer Denmark.
By landing commitments from one top prospect after another, Hartline and Ohio State are building a pipeline full of wide receivers who have the potential to be their next first-round picks. Even more importantly, Hartline has proven he can develop the receivers in his room to get the most out of their talent, whether they are five-star recruits like Smith-Njigba or Wilson or three-star recruits like Olave was.
“The main thing Coach Hartline is preaching there is how to train like a pro, take care of your body like a pro, approach media like a pro,” Wilson said in April. “So all those things, when he’s teaching that, he’s not gonna coddle you. The ones that don’t decide to take that approach to the way you go about your business, you kind of just go by the wayside. And the ones that do, you see them be successful in our room.”
Garrett Wilson with high praises for Ohio State receivers Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka as well as for the wide receiver room as a whole.— Luca Sartirana (@SartiranaLuca) June 17, 2022
Ohio State fans certainly shouldn’t take what Smith-Njigba, Wilson and Olave did last year for granted. Wilson and Olave are both special talents, as evidenced by how highly they were drafted, so it shouldn’t be assumed the next men up will be just as good as they were. It’s no guarantee that Smith-Njigba will be able to repeat his record-setting production from last year either, though his 15-catch, 347-yard, three-touchdown performance in his first game without Olave and Wilson couldn’t have been a more promising sign for his future.
Although it’s clearly become the expectation now that Ohio State will have elite wide receivers year in and year out, the greatness of what the Buckeyes’ top wideouts accomplished last year relative to previous seasons shouldn’t be forgotten. Ohio State hadn’t had a first-round pick at wide receiver since 2007 before this year. As recently as 2017, Ohio State played a 14-game season in which no receiver topped 600 yards for the season. Smith-Njigba’s numbers in the Rose Bowl alone would have been enough to make him Ohio State’s leading receiver in 2011.
The accomplishments of last year’s Ohio State receivers set a high bar that won’t be easy for this year’s receiving corps or any future receiving corps to surpass. That’s certainly the goal for Hartline and the receivers who have chosen to play for him in Columbus, though, and it doesn’t seem unrealistic with all the talent Ohio State has stockpiled at the position.