For the 2022 football season, the Ohio State Buckeyes will have two wide receiver slots open and up for grabs. With C.J. Stroud likely at quarterback, whoever gets those jobs should be well on the way to a big career. But will they be ready to play?
As we approach the two biggest games of the 2021 campaign – this week against the Michigan State Spartans and next week in Ann Arbor – it may seem odd to be talking about next season. Yet, several recent events point to the receivers for next year. We hear, with almost every OSU commentary, that the Bucks have the top receiving corps in college football and that Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson are certain to be drafted in the first round. Olave was also announced this week as a Biletnikoff Award finalist, as was former Buckeye wide receiver Jameson Williams, now playing for the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Against Purdue this past Saturday, the trio of starters – Olave, Wilson, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba – caught a combined 28 passes. Julian Fleming was the only other receiver with a reception (one, for four yards), despite the Buckeyes’ enjoying a three or four-touchdown lead for nearly the entire game.
Although the Ohio State receiver room is always represented as “full,” one wonders if an absence of playing time this year, perhaps even an absence of real development, will hinder the new starters next season. Even though the OSU passing attack, with 353.6 yards per game average, rivals the 2018 passing game, the passes have not been widely distributed.
So far, (10 games) Smith-Njigba leads the team in catches with 59; Wilson and Olave are close behind him, with 53 and 52, respectively. While tight end Jeremy Ruckert has pulled down 22 passes and running back TreVeyon Henderson has 16, the back-up wideouts have been largely neglected. By season’s end, it’s likely that of all the wide receivers on the roster, only the starting three will register at least 20 catches.
Emeka Egbuka (the No. 1 receiver in the 2021 class) has six catches: quite a huge gap between Olave’s 51 and Egbuka’s six! Julian Fleming (the No. 1 receiver in the 2020 class) has five, as does freshman Marvin Harrison, Jr. Obviously, Smith-Njigba will return as one of the starting wideouts next year. Presumably, two of these three (along with Jayden Ballard) will replace Olave and Wilson on the starting offense. I don’t know exactly what goes on at Buckeye practices, but judging solely by game experience, they look pretty green to me. With that inexperience, how big of a hit will the Buckeye passing game take?
In years past (except last year) passes have been distributed to more wide receivers. In 2017, for instance, seven wideouts had at least 20 catches, as the team averaged 262.8 yards passing per game. The following year – with Dwayne Haskins slinging the ball – the Bucks averaged 358.7 yards per game through the air, and six wideouts had at least 20 catches; Parris Campbell leading the pack with 90 and K.J. Hill at 70. 2019 brought a return of a more balanced offense, with a per game average of 263.1 passing yards. Even so, there were five wide receivers with 20 receptions, or more.
Last year was a crazy year, we know, but nearly all of Justin Fields’s passes in the eight-game season went to Olave (50 catches) or Wilson (43). Smith-Njigba had 10, Jameson Williams had nine, and Fleming had seven. Smith-Njigba and Williams were clearly ready to go this season. What about next year?
At first glance, I would guess that Julian Fleming will start. He brought to Columbus a big reputation from high school, and his skills were one of the factors that sent Jameson Williams scurrying to the transfer portal. Although Fleming lost out to Smith-Njigba for the third starting position this year, he’s usually the first one off the bench (when he’s healthy). Playing in only five games so far this season, Fleming has caught five passes for 43 yards. Although his chances for next year look good to me (again, I’m not at the practices), will Fleming be patient enough to come back after two seasons of limited action?
Assuming he’s still a Buckeye (and I have no reason to think that he’s contemplating going anywhere), Fleming could be passed up, however, by some combination of the trio of wide receivers who came in this year as part of the 2021 recruiting class: Egbuka, Harrison, Jr., and Ballard – three receivers, all ranking in the top 15 at their position and top 100 overall in their class.
With Olave, Wilson, and Smith-Njigba collecting the bulk of the snaps, the three freshmen have seen very limited duty on offense. Egbuka, in addition to his exciting kick-off return potential, has shown his speed as a receiver. Among his six receptions is a long catch-and-run of 85 yards. Only six catches, mind you, but Egbuka’s 24.2 yards per reception is the highest on the team (Smith-Njigba is second, with 17.4). Harrison, Jr. has gained 68 yards on his five receptions, and Ballard’s one catch netted four yards.
A couple of observations about this group. I would think that Brian Hartline and Ryan Day would want Egbuka’s speed in the lineup. We haven’t really seen enough of Ballard on the field to assess his chances to become a starter, and Harrison, Jr.’s situation is a bit more complicated, as it may be affected by what happens at quarterback. C.J. Stroud’s enormous success and Quinn Ewers’s early arrival must both have been blows to the hopes of freshman quarterback Kyle McCord, who looked very good in the spring game and in games this season — particularly the Akron game, which he started in Stroud’s absence.
If McCord, as talented as he is, sees himself parked as a third-stringer, might he not test the transfer portal? And, if he does, might not his high school teammate Marvin Harrison, Jr. go with him as a package? It’s just a (troubling) thought. Clearly, until I hear otherwise, I expect them both to return for 2022 and to compete for starting roles at their positions.
Then, there’s the 2022 recruiting class, with four four-star commits at wide receiver, all of them ranking in the top 20 at their position, according to 247Sports Composite. It’s doubtful that Caleb Burton, Kaleb Brown, Kyion Grayes, or Kojo Antwi will earn one of the starting slots, but at least of couple of them will be good enough, early enough, to push returning receivers.
Yes, losing Olave after four years and Wilson after three will be a blow. Wilson ranks 31st in the nation in receiving yards, with 813. Olave leads the nation in receiving touchdowns with 11 and has a really good shot of becoming the Buckeye career record holder in that category. They’ll take with them to the NFL a lot of experience and a lot of production.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba will return next year as a starter, and, so far, he’s been the most prolific of OSU receivers. He ranks 11th nationally in yards receiving with 1,027 (one yard behind Bama’s Jameson Williams!) on his 59 receptions. If I had to speculate (and I guess that’s the point of this article), I’d go with Egbuka and Fleming as the other two starters. Harrison, Jr. would also have a wonderful opportunity to earn one of the positions.
But the 2021 season is by no means over yet, and a great deal can happen before next Sept. 3, when the Notre Dame Fighting Irish come to The Shoe. Transfers, injuries, decommits are all possible. One thing is certain, though: the Buckeye offense in 2022 will again be awesome. There may be a couple of tough choices to make about receivers, but with the quarterbacks and running backs returning, whoever joins Smith-Njigba will step into an envious situation. I’m guessing that they’ll be ready. I hope so.