This is the third in a series looking at how the Buckeyes will be replacing their departed starters in 2024. Up next is a look at one of the receiver spots vacated by the transfer of Julian Fleming.
Julian Fleming was a two-year starter for the Buckeyes, but also earned a start way back as a true freshman in 2020 during the COVID season. He played in 38 career games, starting 20 of the Buckeyes’ last 24 games. Fleming entered the transfer portal as a graduate (Human Development and Family Science) in December and has since landed at Penn State, which is just a stone’s throw from where he played his high school ball.
In his Ohio State career, Fleming spent most of his time as the “Z” receiver for the Buckeyes, catching 80 career passes for 990 yards and seven touchdowns. As a junior in 2022 he caught touchdowns in the first five games he played, but never reached the end zone again for Ohio State. As a senior this past season, he finished with 26 receptions for 270 yards. He was an outstanding blocker but could never move higher than third or fourth in terms of targeting by the Buckeye quarterbacks.
One thing to keep in mind here is that receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator Brian Hartline trains his receivers to play all three receiver spots, so the names that get mentioned here will also get mentioned again when the Marvin Harrison, Jr. conversation happens in the next week or two.
There is the possibility that rising senior Emeka Egbuka moves outside and is the guy who replaces Julian Fleming. Egbuka has spent most of his career in the slot, including the 2022 season when he caught 74 passes for 1,151 yards and 10 touchdowns. He has experience playing everywhere and Hartline will continue to move him around to find matchups, just as he did with Harrison.
Jayden Ballard is entering his fourth season at Ohio State and has spent the majority of his career just outside of playing time. Ballard did not catch a pass last season after catching eight for 155 yards and a touchdown in 2022. Some around the program — including strength coach Mickey Marotti — have said he’s the fastest Buckeye on offense.
Rising sophomore Carnell Tate was fourth among the OSU receivers last year with 18 receptions and 264 yards receiving. Those numbers are going to take a rise this coming season, but maybe at the other outside receiver position. Classmate Bryson Rodgers redshirted last season, then entered the transfer portal, then left the portal. He spent last year in the slot, as did fellow true freshman Brandon Inniss. Both players may be back in the slot this year, and may move up the depth chart considerably if Egbuka has moved outside to either Z or X.
The Buckeyes are also adding a pair of five-star freshmen in Mylan Graham and Jeremiah Smith. Graham won’t arrive until the summer, while some are already touting Smith as a day-one starter. Smith (6-3 200) could line up anywhere for the Buckeyes, while Graham could see time at Z or in the slot.
It will be interesting to see how Brian Hartline slots his receivers. He likely won’t admit to anything hard and fast about who is where in the spring, and with the versatility of his receivers, he won’t need to.
The linchpin in how things shake out will be where Emeka Egbuka ends up, but even then he won’t need to be overly involved in the spring. While this is a talented Ohio State receiver room, it is not overly deep. Egbuka could be an assistant coach during the spring, helping the younger Buckeyes get some much-needed reps.
Jayden Ballard will get plenty of opportunities this spring to show that he can handle more during the season. Carnell Tate may be more of an X (split end) than a Z (flanker), but will line up at all spots throughout the spring. All eyes, however, will be on Jeremiah Smith and wherever he lines up because, as new quarterback Will Howard said of him, “He’s a specimen. I mean, that dude is a freak show.”
The 2023 season was a difficult year for most Ohio State receivers, including Julian Fleming. His numbers dropped from 34-533-6 as a junior to 26-270-0 as a senior. Moving from CJ Stroud to Kyle McCord at quarterback had something to do with that, but so did the gravitational pull of Marvin Harrison, Jr. Harrison is also gone now and replacing him will be a subject for another day.
Regardless of who has the job, the next man up at the flanker position for Ohio State should expect more targets than Fleming saw the past two seasons. Emeka Egbuka could improve his draft stock by showcasing more production outside, so he may be the best bet here, but he’s not the only capable receiver. Egbuka could also end up at X, which could push Carnell Tate to Z. Or maybe Egbuka stays in the slot and Tate stays at X and you have a battle royal for the Z position.
There isn’t really a “best bet” here because Brian Hartline has options. The true best bet is that whoever he puts here is going to be capable of stealing the show on any given snap.