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Column: Is Ohio State set to become the new Wide Receiver U?

Step aside, everyone in the SEC. 

Wild Card Round - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Washington Football Team Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Ohio State has had its share of elite NFL receivers. The trouble is, you could probably name most of the big ones on two hands. One, if you’re just considering the current stock of big name wideouts from Ohio State currently in the league.

Especially when considering recent drafts, it can feel like Ohio State has fallen behind when it comes to elite receivers making it to the NFL — especially to the SEC.

That’s because the SEC does dominate the receiver category, especially when it comes to first round draft picks. Alabama in particular (go figure) has produced elite talent at the receiver position year in and year out that’s continued to pan out at the game’s highest level. Some examples include:

  • Julio Jones
  • Amari Cooper
  • Calvin Ridley
  • Jerry Jeudy
  • Henry Ruggs III

And that list doesn’t include Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith, who were both taken with top-10 picks in the 2021 draft.

There’s also LSU, which boasts Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry on the Browns alone, plus Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase.

But the talent doesn’t lie in the SEC alone. Clemson, for instance, brings the likes of DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, Tee Higgins, Hunter Renfrow and Adam Humphries, among others.

When it comes to Ohio State, the big story of recent drafts has been the well-documented sequence of defensive backs. The Buckeyes clean up when it comes to putting corners and safeties in the NFL. Of course, now that Justin Fields is establishing himself in the Bears’ quarterback room, there are Buckeyes at every position in the pros except for kicker and fullback — which means we must once again get into the discussion of how Ohio State players might utterly dominate the NFL at every spot.

While things might seem far off when it comes to establishing Ohio State’s position as “Wide Receiver U,” the reality is much less bleak — though there’s still a lot of work to do. Heading into this season, Ohio State has two receivers at the top spot for their respective teams (Terry McLaurin/Curtis Samuel, Michael Thomas). Thomas has also been one of the top receivers in the league since 2017; the 2020 season notwithstanding.

But there’s also the consideration that, despite the aforementioned list of Alabama standouts, the collection of top receivers is much more fragmented from both a conference and school perspective — which opens up the running for the title of Wide Receiver U. Take the top-10 receivers (in receiving yards) from the NFL in 2020:

  1. Stefon Diggs (Maryland)
  2. DeAndre Hopkins (Clemson)
  3. Justin Jefferson (LSU)
  4. Calvin Ridley (Alabama)
  5. Davante Adams (Fresno State)
  6. DK Metcalf (Ole Miss)
  7. Tyreek Hill (West Alabama)
  8. Allen Robinson (Penn State)
  9. D.J. Moore (Maryland)
  10. Brandin Cooks (Oregon State)

No. 11 happens to be McLaurin. Keep in mind also that Thomas played just seven regular season games last year, accruing 438 yards. While he was out of the rankings in 2020, he was the league’s top receiver in 2019.

Anything else from the list stand out? Perhaps it’s that, based purely on receiving yards, Maryland has two of the best receivers in the league? Or that the Big Ten has three of the top spots, which is equal to the SEC?

Regardless, even with McLaurin and Thomas, it would be hard to argue that Ohio State is the best candidate for Wide Receiver U at the moment. But the Buckeyes are certainly in the hunt.

However, the status of current receivers doesn’t account for “all-time” considerations. The Buckeyes of the 1980s to mid-2000s produced elite talent like Joey Galloway, Terry Glenn, David Boston, and, of course, Cris Carter. Players like Anthony Gonzalez and Brian Hartline didn’t end up having the same level of success in the NFL, but, we did have Ted Ginn Jr., who played 14 NFL seasons, and Santonio Holmes, whose acrobatics earned the Pittsburgh Steelers a Super Bowl and a permanent spot on every Steelers highlight reel.

But for Ohio State, what are the next steps to getting an elite wide receiver reputation in the future? The good news is it’s not just about the top receiver spot. The Buckeyes have eight other active receivers in the NFL as of this point in the 2021 preseason:

  • Noah Brown
  • Johnnie Dixon
  • Parris Campbell
  • K.J. Hill
  • Austin Mack
  • Curtis Samuel
  • C.J. Saunders
  • Binjimen Victor

Ohio State also has a chance to make up some ground in coming years. Looking ahead, the Buckeyes have three potential first-round picks at receiver over the next two or three draft classes just in their starting rotation between Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

It also is important to note that, under normal circumstances, Olave would have likely been a first round pick at receiver in the 2021 draft class had he chosen to depart Columbus. This year’s receiver class was uncommonly deep, with three wide outs taken in the top 10, so it could help him coming back for another year.

There’s another, more challenging piece that Ohio State must overcome in order to get to Wide Receiver U status. That’s because one of the factors when it comes to drafting Big Ten receivers feels purely reputational.

The conference generally avoids high-flying track meets like you might see, for example, in the Big 12. While these antics generate a lot of head-turning stats that get the attention of NFL scouts, one simply has to look where it’s landed receivers from the Big 12 when it comes to elite NFL pass catchers. For instance, Tyler Lockett was the only Big 12 receiver to record more than 1,000 receiving yards in 2020.

Sure, the Big Ten is known for its Woody Hayes-era reputation of “three yards and a cloud of dust,” but that’s not who the Big Ten is today. And yes, the conference continues to produce running back and offensive line talent at ridiculous levels, but Stefon Diggs is not an anomaly in what he’s been able to do with the Bills. Allen Robinson has been doing his thing for years. Michael Thomas (who by the way was taken in the second round) led the league in receiving yards not that long ago. These players have gone toe-to-toe with talent from other conferences and have come out on top.

Improving recognition of the conference as a haven for wide receivers (which, alas, includes recognizing Maryland as an irl member of the Big Ten) is a solid step in improving Ohio State’s reputation, because a rising tide lifts all boats.

But for now, we know the Buckeyes are making progress.