Xavier Johnson Gives Ohio State “A True Offensive Weapon” That Brian Hartline Must “Find Ways to Use”

By Dan Hope on May 8, 2023 at 7:35 am
Xavier Johnson vs. Indiana

During his presentation at Ohio State’s coaches clinic before the spring game in April, Brian Hartline made it clear just how highly he thinks of Xavier Johnson.

“Easily a top-four-round draft pick next year,” Hartline said while showing a clip of Johnson running through a drill in practice. “Quote me on that.”

Going into Johnson’s sixth year at Ohio State, it remains uncertain how big his role will be in the Buckeyes’ offense this season. While Johnson has proven he can be a weapon at both wide receiver and running back, Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming return as starting wide receivers and TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams are back to lead the running back rotation. Plenty of others are vying for playing time at both positions, too, including Carnell Tate and Jayden Ballard at receiver and Chip Trayanum and Dallan Hayden at running back.

That said, Johnson made a strong case that he should play more whenever he got the opportunity to play on offense last year. On just 25 offensive touches, Johnson gained 297 yards from scrimmage and scored three touchdowns. And he rose to the occasion in some of the biggest moments of the season.

Johnson announced his presence in a big way in Ohio State’s season opener against Notre Dame last year when he scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 24-yard reception, then proceeded to make a tackle at the 13-yard line on the ensuing kickoff.

He had the longest run of the entire season when he made a bevy of defenders miss on a 71-yard touchdown rush against Indiana.

A special teams standout for the Buckeyes for the past several years, Johnson recovered punts blocked by Lathan Ransom in back-to-back games against Indiana and Maryland, while he also had a crucial 46-yard fourth-quarter kickoff return that helped Ohio State win a tight game against the Terrapins.

Johnson showed his playmaking ability to the world again in the College Football Playoff against Georgia when he turned to catch a deep ball from C.J. Stroud and then spun past a defender on his way to the end zone for a 37-yard touchdown that gave the Buckeyes a lead late in the first half of the Peach Bowl.

All of those plays made it clear that Johnson is no charity case, but someone who can be a real asset to the Buckeyes despite his career’s meager beginnings. Hartline, entering his first year as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator, recognizes the value Johnson brings and seemingly wants to use him more frequently on offense in 2023.

“I think Xavier Johnson is a really good receiver and a really good running back. So it's our job to find ways to use that,” Hartline said in March. “He has a great skill set. Maybe limited here or there, that's our job to identify and not put him in tough situations. But I think highly of him as both.”

What exactly that role will look like probably won’t become clear until the season starts, especially after Johnson missed most of the spring with an injury that left him in a walking boot. Presumably, though, Hartline and the Buckeyes will want to take advantage of his ability to move around the formation and make plays both as a downfield receiver and coming out of the backfield.

“Xavier’s awesome. The growth he's had over the last 12-18 months has been awesome. A true offensive weapon,” Hartline said this spring. “I mean, his ability to be an elite receiver and also go in the backfield and carry the football, pick up protections, I mean there's so many things that young man brings to the table, let alone special teams. To me, he's gonna play football for a long time.”

“I think Xavier Johnson is a really good receiver and a really good running back. So it's our job to find ways to use that.”– Brian Hartline

Johnson, who had just four carries and zero catches in his first four years as a Buckeye before last season, wouldn’t still be at Ohio State if he wasn’t confident he’d have the opportunity to continue expanding his role this season. After considering trying his hand in the 2023 NFL draft, Johnson chose to use his extra year of eligibility at Ohio State because he liked Hartline and Ryan Day’s ideas for how they plan to use him this year.

“They talked to me, and they had laid out a plan that they had for me, and I was very comfortable with the plan that they had set before me,” Johnson said in March. “And I just kind of felt like there was some more meat left on the bone, I think that there's still a couple of things that I want to do at Ohio State. And I feel like those all those things are within reach. So coming back was kind of, I think was the best choice for me, and I think that I can really help this team this year.”

Johnson isn’t lobbying for any specific number of touches. While he was more prone to frustration early in his career at Ohio State when he wasn’t playing much, he says he’s learned to trust Day and Hartline to put both him and the team in positions to succeed. So while he is optimistic he will get the ball more often this year, he’ll be ready to take on whatever role the coaches ask him to play.

“I think that Coach Hart and Coach Day together, they're the most genius offensive minds that we could have. I think we have a great infrastructure, they have a phenomenal understanding of how defenses work and how they're moving and how to attack them. So I think that Coach Hart and Coach Day, if they see a fit, I think that (a bigger role on offense) is something that could potentially be done,” Johnson said. “I'm gonna come out here and do what they ask me, try to continue to enhance, going back and recapping with Coach Hart, and from there, I think that we'll see exactly how it transpires.”

Beyond the potential for a bigger role on the field, Johnson also wants to take on a bigger role off the field this season. Now one of the three longest-tenured players (along with Matt Jones and Josh Proctor) on the entire team, Johnson believes he can draw from everything he’s learned over the past five years and be one of Ohio State’s top leaders in 2023.

“We always talk about, like in the locker room, if stuff’s not going right, like who's going to bring the guys together and rally them? I think we had great people in the past; I’ve been here for a while, so Jordan Fuller, Jonathon Cooper, Justin (Fields) was a good leader, C.J. Saunders was an excellent leader, Kam Babb, C.J. Stroud, like, I've been a part of all these guys and I've been able to see what they do and try to implement that into the way that I desire to lead,” Johnson said. “And so I think that that's the biggest thing is first kind of just taking that next step, because I've been a leader kind of behind the scenes. But I think that now it's time to lead in a different manner as an older guy.”

Hartline fully expects Johnson to deliver on the leadership front, describing Johnson as “Kam Babb-ish” in terms of his character and the impact he has on his teammates.

“How I always think of Kam Babb is an amazing young man, he’s created a standard. Everyone kind of knows,” Hartline said in reference to Babb, who was a captain for the Buckeyes for the past two years. “X is in line with all that. Big man of faith, great leader with the young guys, willing to speak up. The future's bright for Xavier.”

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