As the top three receivers for the Buckeyes last year, Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba played more than three times as many snaps during the regular season as Marvin Harrison, who played the fourth-most snaps among the wideouts.
There was virtually no rotating going on. In games that were close, about the only way a receiver would get a breather is when one was replaced for a second tight end.
That will change this year, however. The true freshmen who couldn’t quite be trusted as much as needed last year are now second-year players who have proven to receivers coach Brian Hartline that they are ready.
Junior Julian Fleming has also been healthy, which is very good news for the Buckeyes. Veterans Xavier Johnson and Kamryn Babb round out a group of seven receivers that Hartline is confident he can trust (once Babb gets back from a knee injury that will keep him out for a couple of weeks). Redshirt freshman Jayden Ballard has put in work as a route runner and Hartline said this week that right now Ballard is where he thought he’d be toward the end of the season.
Needless to say, fall camp has been a very productive few weeks for the Buckeyes.
“Yeah, we have more. We have a group of guys now that are ready to step in,” Hartline said. “I have six guys. I have a two deep that are really ready to get on the field and play. They are gonna do everything I ask. I think that there’s some guys in that six that need to continue to grow throughout the season, which is fine, it’s going to happen.”
Those seven receivers have learned all three receiver positions, which means this is a versatile group that gives Hartline the freedom to do put anybody anywhere.
“It does and they’ve done it. Absolutely. You guys will see all that,” Hartline said. “I think that every guy knows every spot. Regardless of the three that are in the game, the guy that’s beside me can go to any spot for a sub. So we talked about having more guys playing this year than we did last year, that’s for sure going to be the case. And a lot of that has been because of design and being able to train guys and not pigeonhole guys in certain spots. And allow these guys to play all three.”
Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave were both selected in the first half of the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft back in the spring, yet just about everybody expects the Buckeyes to replace them without missing much of a beat.
Everyone got a good look in the Rose Bowl at what this year’s passing game was going to look like, and Julian Fleming, Marvin Harrison, and Emeka Egbuka all stepped up and produced in the win over the Utah Utes.
That game was a confidence builder for everyone, and for Jaxon Smith-Njigba, his confidence in his teammates has only grown.
“Oh very, very confident,” he said. “Just like I was confident in myself when a lot of people didn’t know me coming in and you all were asking the same questions to Chris and Garrett. It’s the same thing. We like to say that we reload here in Zone Six. Same thing we’re doing this year.”
Smith-Njigba is a known quantity, so people don’t really need to ask what he brings to an offense. But he has answered plenty of questions about the guys he’s going to be running with this year, and all of it sounds very positive.
“‘Meka, he runs great routes. Strong dude,” Smith-Njigba said. “Fast. Gets in and out of breaks really good. And is sure catcher. Julian Fleming, he’s a really fast guy going down the field. He can create steam and he can just roll. Great competitor. He wants the ball. When the ball’s in the air, he wants it. Marvin, he’s got it all. Routes, speed, in and out of breaks, great hands.”
Together, the Buckeyes’ top group of receivers will give Hartline the freedom to play who he wants, where he wants. It will also allow him to keep his receivers fresh, which will only continue to raise the overall ceiling of this group.
Not every program can replace a pair of first rounders and not miss a beat. We won’t have to wait long to find out if the Buckeyes are one of those rare teams who can actually reload as well as they say they can.