The future is bright inside Ohio State's Wide Receivers room.
As the Buckeye passing game continues to find new heights under the guidance of Ryan Day, the talent at wideout has found new depths. With a Heisman finalist at quarterback and two receivers who exploded onto the scene in junior Chris Olave and sophomore Garrett Wilson along with a bevy of blue-chip freshmen, the cupboard remains stocked for receivers coach Brian Hartline.
But although many expect the connection between Fields, Olave, and Wilson to lead one of the nation's top aerial attacks in 2020, the scarlet and gray must replace the 118 receptions, 1,542 yards, and 19 touchdowns provided by its three departing seniors - Binjimen Victor, Austin Mack, and K.J. Hill. Though Olave led the team with 849 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns, emerging early in the year as the Buckeyes' primary deep threat, it was Hill who still led the team in receptions.
While the rest of the group may have averaged more yards-per-catch, it was Hill who never seemed to come off the field. Victor and Wilson rotated at the X receiver while Mack and Olave manned the Z, but Hill took the vast majority of snaps at H receiver in the slot, going to the sideline only when the Buckeyes opted for two-tight end looks.
“One of the things going into the season for us was that we felt like our 12 package was stronger this year, and so that H position has been supplemented a little bit with a second tight end, and I think that's been good for us,” Day said back in October.
Hill failed to earn much attention at the national or league-wide levels, earning only honorable mention all-Big Ten recognition last fall. But at last week's Senior Bowl, however, he turned countless heads with a host of highlights.
As has long been the case in Columbus, the H receiver was often on the receiving end of bubble screens in 2019, meant to punish defenses for cheating to stop the inside run game and resulting in plenty of easy yards.
His shiftiness in the open field was apparent on those screens, as well as during his 45 career punt returns. But it also showed up downfield after the catch, such as when he took a middle hook route off the Mesh concept and beat three open field defenders late in December's conference title game.
Day and Hartline asked Hill to do all kinds of things out of the slot, including attacking downfield. In the Smash-Fade concept shown below, he does an excellent job of setting up the defender by initially releasing vertically, getting the defender in a backpedal before breaking toward the sideline.
By the time the defender opens his hips to run toward the pylon, Hill has already created two yards of separation.
As he showed at the Senior Bowl, Hill has become a master at releasing off the line, using a number of short steps to set up the defender before exploding into his break.
.@KayJayHill is a technician— Receiver School (@ReceiverSchool) January 26, 2020
Slides him outside to move him away from the inside
Uses the slide step to assess him + uses the 4 buzz steps to push up & at the DB
Violent head / shoulder thrust & crossover pic.twitter.com/9oDS4aUMT3
This ability to create separation was especially useful on third downs, as Hill led the team with 10 receptions in these critical situations. He clearly became a safety blanket for Fields, who knew the senior from Arkansas would find space when it mattered most.
In the example below, the defender is playing off coverage, leaving a five-yard cushion between him and the receiver. Hill's first job is to close the gap immediately and take control of the interaction.
As he approaches, he cuts down the length of his strides to get under control before exploding out of the cut with the help of a head fake. Despite an initially conservative alignment, the defender is left back on his heels and leaning the wrong direction, allowing the receiver plenty of room to make a catch and move the sticks.
In the red zone, Hill proved even more dangerous, scoring a team-high seven touchdowns as defenses struggled to contain him. On this corner route in a Double-China concept, Hill influences the safety responsible for him by releasing inside and getting the defender to shuffle away from the direction he will eventually break, creating natural leverage in favor of the receiver.
Not only is Hill skilled at running routes, but he also has the awareness of when to use which tools in his toolbox, mastering the playbook and recognizing the movements of the defense.
In this example against Indiana, the Buckeyes are running a version of their Spread concept, otherwise known as Saints or H-Over. The concept has been a staple under Day as it is the perfect example of a 'progression read' for the quarterback, working from one side of the field to the other.
Against the Hoosiers, Hill was the player responsible for the "spread" route, which can change from a vertical route to a crosser depending on the alignment of the two safeties. If both safeties drop, Hill should run vertically between them, while turning it into a 12-yard crosser if only one drops.
The Hoosiers show both safeties deep before the snap, only to roll into a Cover 3 zone with the safety in a "buzz" alignment under the seam. Hill not only recognizes the late switch and adjusts his route on the fly, but he sees that the other seam defender (the inside linebacker) isn't gaining enough depth in his drop, leaving a soft spot for Fields to deliver an easy pass for a big gain.
Although Hill won't be in Columbus this fall, the coaches who helped him get to this point - Hartline and Quality Control coach Keenan Bailey - remain firmly entrenched. As they've made clear as his biggest cheerleaders this week on social media, Hill's accolades at the Senior Bowl were the result of his hard work with them on the practice field.
Routes on Air is the most important period of the day - @brianhartline— Keenan Bailey (@CoachKee) January 22, 2020
The way you run a Corner then is how youll run it during
1on1 (v 1st Rd DB)
On Saturday (in front of 110k+)
At the @seniorbowl (after setting schools alltime rec record)
Keep going @KayJayHill pic.twitter.com/xmRDjlJ6tW
As for who fills Hill's spot in the offense, it remains to be seen. Some have speculated that Chris Olave could move inside, others assume Jaelen Gill will progress from backup to starter, while freshman Mookie Cooper has also been mentioned. Even tight end Jeremy Ruckert's name has come up, given his athletic ability and hands.
But Day seemingly has no intention of forcing a player into a role simply because it existed the year prior.
“We’re going to rank our top six wide receivers and figure out who are the top six,” Day said earlier this month. “Whoever those top six are, they’re going to get on the field. And what you don’t want to do is just pigeonhole a guy where you have three really good players at one position and only one is on the field.”
Whatever Ohio State's depth chart looks like come the fall, one thing is clear - replacing K.J. Hill's production from the slot won't be as simple as finding the next man up.