Jayden Ballard’s ability to make plays as a deep threat was on full display during two opportunities to watch him catch passes last week.
As one of the current Buckeye pass-catchers selected to catch passes from C.J. Stroud at last week’s Ohio State pro day, Ballard looked as impressive as any wideout on the field. He put his speed and ability to track the ball on display for NFL scouts as he caught multiple deep throws from Ohio State’s former quarterback.
C.J. Stroud caps off his throwing session with another nice deep ball to Jayden Ballard: pic.twitter.com/qi7K6Ag1xB— Dan Hope (@Dan_Hope) March 22, 2023
Against actual coverage during Ohio State’s first scrimmage of the spring Saturday, Ballard put his big-play ability on display once again, beating Jordan Hancock on a double move to catch a 50-yard touchdown pass from Kyle McCord on the first play of the live scrimmage portion of practice.
Those glimpses are reason to believe Ballard could be a field-stretching weapon for the Buckeyes. In the best wide receiver room in the country, however, that doesn’t guarantee he’ll play a more prominent role this season.
Ballard's Ohio State career has gotten off to a quiet start compared to the other two receivers he arrived in Columbus as a member of the 2021 recruiting class. While Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka saw immediate playing time as freshmen and were both among college football’s 10 most productive receivers in 2022, Ballard – who was ranked just two spots behind Harrison in 247Sports’ composite rankings – has played only occasionally in his first two years as a Buckeye, catching just nine passes for 159 yards.
While Harrison and Egbuka were ready to make a significant impact quickly for the Buckeyes, Ballard’s development has been more gradual. Brian Hartline is pleased with the progress he’s seen so far this spring from Ballard, who he believes is playing faster and more consistently than he was last year. Still, Ballard isn’t quite where Hartline would like him to be going into his redshirt sophomore season.
“I've been PO’d at him because I thought where he could have been last fall is where he is now. I wish where he was now was last fall. He's six months behind where I thought he was going to be,” Ohio State’s offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach said Tuesday. “But he's doing a good job, doing a really good job. Now he's gotta keep going. Because if he stops where he's at now, it's not gonna be good enough. He’s got to be better.”
When Hartline has been asked about Ballard or any of other Ohio State’s backup receivers who haven’t seen much playing time yet, his message has been consistent: If he’s going to take one of his starting receivers off of the field, whoever’s rotating into the lineup has to be able to do everything the player he’s replacing can. With Harrison, Egbuka and Julian Fleming returning from last season, that means Ballard still must become a more complete receiver to earn more snaps with the first-team offense this year.
“At the end of the day, if I'm gonna pull a guy off the field to put you on, you got to do what he does. I mean, I’m not gonna pull the left tackle off and put the next guy in for everybody to feel good,” Hartline said on March 9. “So you've got to be able to do that (be as good as the starters). And if he's deserving of that, he'll be out there. And that goes for any position. You've got to make sure there's not a fall-off if you're gonna get an opportunity to be on the field on Saturday.”
Hartline believes Ballard has the potential to be a star receiver at Ohio State and beyond. But Hartline says Ballard has to be more than just a deep threat to make that happen.
“If that's all we talk about, then it's gonna be really hard to play past college football, because that's not the reality of after college,” Hartline said. “His growth as a complete player is the key to all his goals. And if one of his goals is playing a lot at Ohio State or being a starter, you will not just play at Ohio State – I mean, you'll participate, that's fine – but you're not going to be one of those starters if you're not doing it all at a high level. And that's the standard. That's the goal. And he knows that.
“And he's growing in all of those facets. He made a list of them. He's doing better in all of them. So he's just gotta continue that trajectory. And like I said, I'm really excited for everything to come to JB. It's not if, it's when.”
“He's doing a good job. Doing a really good job. Now he's gotta keep going. Because if he just stops where he's at now, it's not gonna be good enough. He’s got to be better.”– Brian Hartline on Jayden Ballard
Ballard has taken that message from Hartline to heart. While he believes his ability to take the top off the defense with his speed is his biggest strength, he says his focus this offseason is on becoming a more well-rounded receiver.
“I'm going to work on basically my whole route tree, obviously growing that instead of just a deep threat,” Ballard said on March 9 when asked what his main goal was this spring. “Really just keep on grinding and pushing myself to be what I know I can be and obviously what coach Hart can see and just keep on pushing myself and just keep on trending up.”
Now that Ballard is entering his third year at Ohio State, Ryan Day is among those who would like to see him make a bigger impact this season.
“I think he has to, right? I mean, this is it for JB. He knows that. This is his time,” Day said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “Came in with some really talented guys. But he's talented, too. You can see his speed, you can see his change of direction. Even at the (pro day) workout the other day, he caught a lot of people's eyes. So he has the ability and hopefully if he can continue to make plays like he did today, then he can start producing for us.”
Hartline, however, doesn’t think there’s any need to put a timetable on Ballard making a bigger impact just yet. He still has three remaining years of eligibility at Ohio State, and he should have ample opportunity to compete for a starting job next season with Harrison, Egbuka, Fleming and Xavier Johnson all likely off to the NFL after this year. So while Ballard is hungry to earn a bigger role this year and could be the next man up if Ohio State suffers any injuries at wide receiver, Hartline wants Ballard to stay focused on improving.
“I wouldn't say it's his time. It's always his time. I mean, we’re like labeling people on like when their time is. I don't understand that concept,” Hartline said. “I'm excited for what's to come for Jayden. And when it comes, you know, it's circumstantial, but at the end of the day, he's on a good path. And he knows that.”
Ballard says he’s committed to staying on that path even though he’ll likely still be waiting his turn another year for his chance to become a starter.
“My heart is just here right now. I don’t have no other plans of leaving,” Ballard said. ‘I got a good relationship with all the dudes I came in with, especially Marvin, Mek, obviously Julian, especially coach Hart. So I don't got no plan of leaving.”