You could be forgiven for having some trouble recalling who finished behind Parris Campbell in targets and receptions for Ohio State in 2018. With Campbell leading the way at 90 receptions, Ohio State really tried to avoid having a true number two receiver. Dwayne Haskins liked to spread the ball around to everyone, and he did just that. Ohio State had five receivers with more than 25 receptions last year, and seven with more than 30 targets.
That spread makes it a bit difficult for some to pin down who exactly filled that number two spot behind the electrifying Campbell. Deep threats Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon both seem like pretty good choices, given the massive improvements they made in 2018. Austin Mack is harder to make a case for, but it sure felt like he racked up the catches prior to a season-ending injury.
The truth? No matter how spread out Ohio State’s offense felt, there was a true second option, and he just happens to be Ohio State’s greatest offensive weapon entering 2019. With 68 catches on 93 targets, slot wideout K.J. Hill outpaced the next highest volume receiver (Johnnie Dixon) by 26 receptions. He picked up nearly 1,000 yards, served as the Buckeyes’ steadiest downfield hands, and actually outgained the hyper-explosive Parris Campbell per catch, by nearly a yard.
So, with the leading receiver, the third leading receiver, and the fourth leading receiver all off to the NFL, why is more not being made about K.J. Hill? We’ve talked plenty about Chris Olave, Binjimen Victor, Austin Mack, and even Garrett Wilson — all for good reason, mind you — but Hill has seemingly slipped into the background a bit. Why is that?
To find an answer, we’ve got to go back a ways, to Hill’s recruitment, his play style, and the way that he approaches the game.
Who is K.J. Hill
Hill was the latest possible addition to Ohio State’s 2015 recruiting class, a group that has spent the last five years getting a pretty decent amount of grief from fans and coaches for not fully living up to its top-ten ranking. That’s the best possible starting point for understanding the unique dynamic around Hill, because he has a history of flying under the radar.
It’s pretty easy to do, after all, when you flip from Arkansas to Ohio State on signing day, after only really becoming a target for the Buckeyes in December and January, after they realized that one receiver (Alex Stump) and an athlete (Torrance Gibson) isn’t enough for a full class. The nature of his pledge always made Hill a bit of an unfamiliar face to Buckeye fans. There was never that basis of a lengthy recruitment, because his Ohio State recruitment was short and sweet. He visited Columbus and Ohio State sent some coaches to visit him, and he flipped on signing day. That was the whole thing. Drama? Sure. But compact, quick drama.
That means that Hill never really had the chance to build excitement in the way that someone like Victor, Mack, or Wilson did. Despite his talent, and top-200 four-star ranking, Hill was always a bit of an afterthought, because he was a late addition.
On top of that, Hill has never been the most physically impressive receiver on the field, and will never be the most physically impressive receiver on the field. He’s 6-foot flat (that may be generous) and 195 pounds, and while he can certainly move, he’s much more “quick” than he is “fast.” He’s a very good route runner, with very good hands, and a very good brain for the position.
He’s not 6-foot-4, towering over defenders like Victor. He’s not a 4.3 40-yard-dash runner like Campbell. He doesn’t have tantalizing potential that sends fans back to the days of Terry Glenn like Olave does. Hill has already shown us what he is, and he’s done it for three years straight. He’s a consistent first-down machine, that does everything well, and can keep an offense afloat unlike anyone else on the roster.
He’s also shown steady improvement in each of his three years in Columbus. Part of that can certainly be attributed to a pass-friendly system in 2017 and 2018, but I think a lot of Hill’s improvement has been legitimately individual. He hasn’t added anything brand new to his game, but he’s nearing perfection of his brand of football. There isn’t a better safety blanket slot receiver in college football, and there isn’t a more valuable returning starter on Ohio State’s offense than Hill.
While his consistency is his greatest strength — and while it will almost certainly lead to him taking over as Ohio State’s all-time leading receiver this season — that consistency and balance is at the center of Hill’s lack of true stardom.
It’s almost reminiscent of someone like Ryan Broyles, who lit up every defense he played against for years, but fell into the second round of the NFL draft because of his height (5-foot-10), lack of elite speed, and the offense that he played in.
Now, it’s not fair to compare Hill to one of the most efficient receivers in the history of college football, right? That’s absurd, at least on its face, but I think it’s worth looking into further.
Could we see Hill put up a stat line similar to Broyles in 2009 (89/1,120/15)? That would require another big step forward, and probably quite a few more downfield throws to Hill than we saw last year, but Broyles did that on just 12.6 yards per reception.
Hill’s YPR in 2018? 12.6. Hill’s offensive coordinator in 2019? Kevin Wilson, just like Broyles’ in 2009. To expect Hill to be the best receiver on the roster, like Broyles was, seems pretty fair. To expect Justin Fields to be at least as good as Landry Jones was that season also seems pretty fair. Hill isn’t going to rack up 1,600 yards like Broyles did in 2010, but when you actually look into the numbers, the comparison seems to make a whole lot of sense.
Who could K.J. Hill become?
If Hill puts up numbers like that in 2019, it will mean that one of these three things has happened:
1.) Ohio State’s non-Hill receivers didn’t take the step forward that the Buckeyes wanted. Victor remained a gimmick at best, Mack’s drop issues continued, and Olave became too predictable as a mesh and post-route machine. Because of their struggles, Hill is forced to shoulder the load, becoming essentially the only receiver that Fields can trust to make plays. This is, almost certainly, the worst case scenario. I think it also happens to be the least likely.
2.) Ohio State has another down year running the ball, forcing Ryan Day to dial up a 500+ pass season for his starting quarterback. More passes means more targets for Hill and for every receiver on the team, which could mean that Hill puts up big numbers while someone like Mack or Victor racks up around 60 receptions, and a few others get in above the 25 or 30 reception line like we saw in 2018.
This feels more likely than number one, but I’m still not sure I would expect it. This means that J.K. Dobbins couldn’t regain his 2017 form, the line couldn’t gel, or, scariest of all, Fields got hurt, crippling Ohio State’s rushing threat out of the backfield and pushing the Buckeyes into a pass-first system with Gunnar Hoak.
3.) This one is going to be your favorite, and it really does seem to be the most likely, given Ohio State’s personnel. Fields is good (not as good as Haskins, but still good), and adds balance to the offense with his feet. The overall targets drop a bit — and the second receiver only grabs 45 passes instead of closer to 70 — but Hill is good enough and consistent enough to shoulder the load, even with a lot of improving talent around him.
This would allow Victor and Mack to really play their game without pushing too much, and it would give Olave a full year of experience before he takes over as the star next season. It also gives Fields a year with the nation’s best security blanket, and helps him build up his confidence in the OSU offense entering 2020, when he’ll be without that safety valve.
This would require a whole lot going right for the Buckeyes, but with how bullish I am on Day as a play-caller, and on the talent in this offense, I think it’s the most attainable of the three that could see Hill rack up Broyles-like numbers.
While he won’t do it with massive, flashy plays, and he won’t quite look the part of an elite receiver, I can’t imagine Ohio State fans would be too upset with K.J. Hill fully evolving into the silent superstar that he’s always seemed destined to become.