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Column: What in the world are we going to do with Xavier Johnson?

One of the most versatile Buckeye players needs to see more playing time – somewhere!

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Notre Dame at Ohio State Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Back in the day, it wasn’t unusual for college football players — even ones at premier programs like Ohio State — to play multiple positions. Usually, those were offense/defense combinations, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen it, except on situational downs when, for example, an extra offensive lineman might line up in the backfield to provide additional blocking on a short-yardage run.

Certainly, we’ve seen a lot of Buckeyes change position: Cade Stover, Steele Chambers, and Gee Scott Jr. come to mind immediately, but there are plenty of others. However, Xavier Johnson, well under the radar for his first four seasons as a Buckeye, has lined up at both wide receiver and running back in the same game, and that’s only the beginning of his Swiss Army Knife capabilities.

A little background

Although Johnson played in all eight of Ohio State’s 2020 games and all 13 of last year’s contests, I admit that he first caught my attention during the 2022 spring game. Who was this guy making really good catches? One of the freshmen receivers? His play had me consulting the OSU roster for some info.

And then Johnson caught a touchdown pass in the season opener against Notre Dame. Notre Dame! There were only three Ohio State TDs in that game, and Xavier Johnson got one of them — Emeka Egbuka and Miyan Williams the other two. Johnson’s 24-yard reception in the third quarter gave the Bucks the lead, one that they would keep for the rest of the game. I know that Julian Fleming was out and that Jaxon Smith-Njigba got hurt, but, I repeat, who is this guy?

Then, last week against Michigan State, Williams was out with an injury. With Evan Pryor done for the season, the Buckeyes are a bit thin at running back. In steps the X-Man (or maybe the X-Factor is better). He carried the ball three times and gained 23 yards. That’s good for a 7.7 yards per carry average — barely less than Williams’s 7.8 and better than TreVeyan Henderson’s 6.3 or Dallan Hayden’s 4.8. I realize that it’s a small sample, but even so...

A bit further back

Like Chris Olave, Johnson was a three-star recruit in the 2018 class. Unlike Olave, however, he wasn’t offered by OSU. In fact, he turned down a few scholarship offers to walk on in Columbus. Johnson wanted to be a Buckeye.

If you think that he’s versatile now, you should take a look at his high school stats at Cincinnati’s Summit Country Day School. Like most high school stars, Johnson played both offense and defense. On offense, he carried the ball and he caught passes. As a senior, he rushed for 623 yards and collected 766 receiving yards. Johnson scored touchdowns for his team not only by receiving and rushing but also with kickoff returns, punt returns, and interception returns. At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, with speed, Xavier Johnson was a force to be reckoned with. And he still is.

What now?

Johnson earned his bachelor’s degree in December 2021, and 2022 is his fifth year on the team. He’s played wide receiver, running back, and cornerback. He’s also played a ton of special teams — 224 special teams snaps in 2021, with six tackles. He returned three kickoffs last year for 52 yards. This year, he’s still on special teams, but has played exclusively on offense, primarily as a wideout. He’s caught five passes for 48 yards and that TD against the Irish.

Once JSN returns to action (we hope this coming week against Iowa), Johnson’s snaps at wide receiver will probably diminish. But the Buckeyes should find a spot for him elsewhere. Two very glaring weak spots have emerged for the otherwise-powerful Bucks: cornerback and kick returning.

I’m not one to name names, but Egbuka and Chip Trayanum (another guy who has switched from his original running back position to linebacker) have struggled to field both punts and kickoffs. They’ve made bad decisions, they’ve muffed kicks, they give me the willies every time that they’re back there.

I say, let’s insert the X-Man. He was a star kick returner in high school; he’s done it as a collegian; he’s earned a shot here, and it’s not like it could be much worse than it has been; heck I think that it would surely be an improvement.

Coming into this season, we knew that the Buckeyes were thin at the corners. But we also thought that the two starters — Denzel Burke and Cam Brown — were really good. They haven’t been.

Jordan Hancock, before his preseason injury, was also an exciting player expected to feature heavily in the rotation. And the young backup CBs — redshirt freshman J.K. Johnson and true freshman Jyaire Brown — have been decent at best. I say that the X-Factor should factor in. Why not? Again, he’s got experience in both high school and college. I know that the playbooks contain complications that I can’t begin to understand, but Johnson has been around for five years, he’s been there and done that.

Bottom line, coach: don’t limit Xavier Johnson to special teams. Although he’s really good there, the fans want to see him play. We want to see him all over the field. We want to see him intercept passes and score touchdowns. We want to see him carried off the field on the shoulders of his cheering teammates. Put him in, coach, he’s ready to play!