In my last article – on quarterbacks and running backs in the spring game – I said that I would next focus on receivers, both wideouts and tight ends. Since my colleague Chris Renne has recently done such a great job on the Buckeye tight ends, I’ll focus solely on wide receivers in this piece.
During the 2021-22 season (counting the Rose Bowl), Ohio State threw for 4,952 yards, completing 349 passes in 494 attempts. They scored 46 passing touchdowns and had only eight interceptions. Departing receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave accounted for 135 of those 349 receptions (38.7%), 1994 of the passing yards (40.3%) , and 25 of the touchdowns (54%). When you look at those numbers and recall what those two receivers have meant to the team, you might think “rebuilding year in the passing game.” Hardly.
For this season, not only is star quarterback C.J. Stroud back, but Ohio State returns its top receiver, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who pulled in 95 passes for 1,606 yards and nine touchdowns. When I mentally picture JSN, I see him running wild in the Rose Bowl, racking up an amazing, record-setting 347 yards on 15 catches. Also back are four more talented, highly-touted receivers licking their chops to get more snaps. Julian Fleming, Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka, and Jayden Ballard will be competing for the two vacant starting slots.
Additionally, Brian Hartline and the Buckeyes recruited four four-star wide receivers in the 2022 class, and two of them – Caleb Burton and Kyion Grayes – are early enrollees and should play in this Saturday’s spring game.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Last year was JSN’s first year as a starter, and he outshined All-Americans and nearly-certain first-round NFL draft picks Olave and Wilson. What a season! He averaged 123.5 receiving yards per game. That’s the kind of number you’d see if a team had only one WR that they targeted every play. JSN came into the season as the clear No. 3 guy. He’s now widely recognized as the best college receiver in the country. ‘Nuf said.
Marvin Harrison, Jr. I’m putting Harrison in second place here, largely because of the Rose Bowl. With Wilson and Olave electing to sit out the bowl game, Harrison became a starter and produced big time. He caught six balls, giving him 13 receptions for the season, and scored three touchdowns. Among wide receivers, his 63 Rose Bowl snaps were second only to JSN’s 64; snap counts may suggest how the coaches figure the depth charts. (Fleming had 47 offensive snaps, Egbuka 18.)
In the spring game, it will be interesting to see if Harrison plays like a confident starter — if he runs his routes, catches passes when he’s targeted, and even challenges Smith-Njigba as top dog. It seems to me that there’s little downside to Harrison’s game. He looks just like the top-notch wide receivers that OSU has had on the field for the last 8-10 years. Olave and Wilson move on, Harrison steps in. I imagine that he’ll have two years as a Buckeye starter and then be picked in the first round of the draft, as a tradition continues.
Julian Fleming. Fleming (not JSN) was the No. 1 wide receiver nationally in the 2020 recruiting class. And, in my opinion, we’re still waiting for a breakout. Last year, he caught 11 passes for 86 yards. That 7.2 yards per catch was the lowest among receivers. In the Rose Bowl, he gained only 35 yards for his five receptions. The issue seems to be yards after the catch. Of course, there are lots of possible explanations — the routes he’s running, the plays that are called, etc. But I worry that he hasn’t gained enough separation from his defender when he makes the catch or that he lacks the burst or strength to escape the tackle from the initial defender.
Whatever the case, I’ll be watching Fleming for yards after the catch. Based on the Rose Bowl (and, in fact, all of last season), Fleming is likely to be the starter, along with Harrison. I want to see him earn the job.
Emeka Egbuka. Egbuka is the flip side of low yards per catch. He’s dynamic. Egbuka’s longest catch last season went for 85 yards — longest on the team. He also had a 67-yard kick return. He caught only nine passes for the year, so averages are deceptive, but 21.2 yards per catch isn’t shabby. Even if we delete the long play, Egbuka averaged 13.2 yards for his other eight receptions, only about a yard less than Olave’s average. But the point is we can’t delete the long play because that’s Egbuka’s strength: the long play.
In the spring game, we’ll get a good, long look at Emeka Egbuka. He played only 115 offensive snaps in 2021, so I’m not sure that I know what all he can do. But, from what I’ve seen, I’d rank him ahead of Fleming until Fleming shows me something to change my mind.
Jayden Ballard. Reports out of the Buckeye spring camp indicate that Ballard is lighting it up. I can’t wait to see for myself. Like Harrison, Ballard was a top 100 recruit in the 2021 class, where Egbuka was the No. 1 receiver. But in 2021 Ballard played in only four games and caught only one pass with 34 offensive snaps, two more on special teams.
Here’s his chance. Harrison may have a lock on that No. 2 receiver spot, but the No. 3 is open, I would think. Ballard’s one of three guys for whom the spring game is crucial. Let’s see what he’s got.
Caleb Burton. I’m listing Burton first only because of the two freshmen wide receivers who are enrolled and playing in the spring game, Burton is first alphabetically. Though Burton hails from Austin, TX, he apparently had his heart set on becoming a Buckeye. Ohio State was his only official visit, although he had offers from Alabama, Auburn, and a bunch of other premier programs. 247Sports rated Burton as the No. 10 wide receiver in the 2022 class and No. 71 nationally, at any position. He’s on the smallish side – 6-foot, 165 – but has drawn praise for an ability to get open and for the hands to make the catch. I’m sure that Burton’s not accustomed to playing with a QB with Stroud’s accuracy and touch. It should be fun to watch.
Kylon Grayes. I watched quite a bit of Grayes on film, and, to me, he already looks just like the great Ohio State receivers that we’ve gotten used to. He ran a lot of the same routes out of both the slot and the wideout positions. He has that initial burst that allows him a couple of steps on the defender. He has separation speed, and he has hands. Grayes (5-11, 170) is from Chandler, AZ, and was ranked as the No. 8 receiver (63rd overall, nationally) by 247Sports.
The Buckeyes signed two other four-star wide receivers in the 2022 class: Caleb Brown and Kojo Antwi. Neither of them is an early enrollee, so we won’t see them until the fall.
Brown played his high school ball at St. Rita’s in Chicago’s tough Catholic League. 247Sports ranked him as the 13th best receiver in the class, but he also played a lot of running back in high school. He might be looking at a place in the slot, possessing the quickness required there. TTUN seems to have been the Bucks’ top competition for Brown.
Antwi, from Sewanee, GA, showed a lot of interest in the Georgia Bulldogs and also made official visits to Southern Cal and Texas A&M. When all was said and done, though, the 19th-ranked WR signed with Hartline and the Buckeyes.
I doubt that any of these four freshmen will be in the running for a starting position. Like Harrison, Egbuka, and Ballard, they’ll put in the work in practice, perhaps play on special teams, and learn their craft.
But once again, the wide receiver room is packed. C.J. Stroud is a great quarterback and a lucky guy to have such talented targets to throw to. I’m not sure what to expect in the spring game, but I imagine that two adjectives will apply to me some time during the game – surprised and impressed. Go Bucks!