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Is Jayden Ballard a sleeping giant for the Ohio State football team?

Despite being a top-100 player in his recruiting class, Ballard has not always been hyped up like some of his WR peers.

After getting a small taste in 2021, is Ballard ready to break out in 2022?
Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Jayden Ballard was a top-100 (inside the top-50 at one point) national recruit, and one of the highest-rated players in Ohio coming out of high school — which is no surprise, given that he set records for the legendary Massillon Tigers. Ballard’s OSU bio lists him as the former #8 WR in the country, while 247 Sports had him ranked 15th. Regardless of overall class rank, Ballard was a unanimous top-5 player in the state of Ohio and committed to Ohio State during the summer of 2019.

Marvin Harrison Jr. committed shortly thereafter, and Emeka Egbuka did so much later in the process, making Ballard the third-highest WR recruit in his team’s signing class. He eventually joined Brian Hartline’s WR room, which already included the likes of Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and Julian Fleming — in addition to his high-profile classmates. With such talent and depth at the position, it’s safe to say that the odds were stacked against Ballard contributing as a true freshman, and unsurprisingly, he saw limited action in just four games last year.

Ballard now enters the 2022 season still projected to play behind a number of other wide receivers, but this time around, his name is coming up as a player to keep our eyes on. His name is being mentioned by the likes of Chris Olave and Ryan Day, a few guys you might be familiar with. And if Olave and Day are gassing a player up, we should probably pay close attention... especially since Olave knows a thing or two about rocketing up the depth chart. Ballard has the potential to come from further back in the pack, and develop into a real contributor for this OSU offense. So if you (we) haven’t done so already, it sounds like it’s time to raise your expectations for this redshirt freshman.

Despite being ranked behind Egbuka and Harrison Jr., Ballard was a certified stud coming out of high school. And he signed before either of those classmates, which is further evidence that Hartline and Day have been intrigued by his potential for some time. It is easy to see why. Ballard is a blazer with size and leaping ability. The Columbus Dispatch’s Bill Rabinowitz compared him to Devin Smith — another former Buckeye from Massillon — and I couldn’t agree more (not that Rabinowitz needs my affirmation). Not taking anything away from his teammates’ ability to do the same thing, but Ballard’s potential to take the top off the defense could earn him a unique role in this year’s offense.

JSN does, and will continue to do, everything for Ohio State. He is the best WR in college football, and I refuse to hear otherwise. Harrison Jr. showed out in the Rose Bowl, and physically, is unlike any other WR on the OSU roster. Egbuka has an Olave/Wilson-esque ceiling, and I will go to my grave holding Fleming stock... but where is the Terry Glenn/Devin Smith-type deep ball specialist? Again, not taking away from any of these guys’ potential to be just that, but Ballard has been billed as the potential next version of those former Buckeye greats.

During a recent spring practice, Day referenced Ballard’s big-play ability and also mentioned the wideout being a recipient of a “most improved award” from the strength staff. You can count Mickey Marotti and his crew among the growing number of Ballard fans, and be rest assured that he is putting in the work. It sounds like improved route-running could be the final piece for this talented speedster, which is something Olave mentioned during his time at the NFL scouting combine, and Ballard himself alluded to after a recent practice. He also said that his immediate goal is to contribute on special teams, further indicating that the young wide receiver is willing to pay his dues.

It certainly won’t be easy for Ballard to crack the lineup. Not only are there proven guys in front of him, but he will also have to compete for reps with talented freshmen such as Caleb Burton, Kyion Grayes, and Kojo Antwi. It is a great problem for OSU to have, but a challenge for the individual players. Ballard sounds like a guy who is up for the challenge, so I am eager to see what he can do in the future.

Now that Ballard wears the same number that Smith once wore (#9), imagine if he could replicate Smith’s downfield proficiency (21 YPC for his career). He could be a great complement to JSN, Harrison Jr., and others. But as Buckeye fans, we should just be excited about his development and potential, along with the rest of the wide receivers. Not to sound like a broken record, but the amount of talent - and character - that Hartline and Day have amassed, is staggering. We will continue to watch and read about those guys’ development as the year progresses, and I can only imagine the things they are cooking up in that WR lab. Go Bucks!