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Column: Ohio State returns three starters at receiver, but the future of the position is on the line this spring

With two out of three of the top returnees out this spring with injuries, the young receivers have an opportunity to show Brian Hartline who is up next.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Ohio State has continued their spring practice this week coming off their first competitive scrimmage of the season. After a set of three more practices, there has been a lot of conversations coming out of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

One of the main conversation topics has been about the receiver room, and the talent inside it. Offensive coordinator and receivers coach Brian Hartline has stocked the room up better than any program in the country. After stacking up first round picks in the draft from his room and five-stars on the recruiting trail, the natural succession plan has taken a foothold on the room.

Last season, that plan included the emergence of former four-star receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., five-star receiver Emeka Egbuka, and five-star receiver Julian Fleming. There was a slight drop off after the injury of Jaxon-Smith Njigba, but the overall depth from recruiting kept the Ohio State receiver core as one of the best in the country.

This spring, Egbuka and Fleming are both out, opening up opportunities for young guys – and one older guy – to step up with the additional reps. The rotations have been increidbly tight under Hartline, so if a player makes him rotate, they have absolutely earned it. That is what this offseason is about: who is going to step up and solidify their role and future in the rotation.

Jayden Ballard will be a key contributor this season

Starting with Jayden Ballard is the only logical place for this conversation to begin. Ballard is a former top-100 recruit who was part of the 2021 class that included Harrison Jr. and Egbuka. Both his classmates had breakout campaigns last year, with one leading the team in touchdowns and yards, and the other leading the team in receptions. Ballard was behind Julian Fleming and Harrison Jr. on the outside, and due to the inexperience of those two they needed as many reps as possible.

Coming into this offseason, this is absolutely a make or break spring for the Massillon Washington product. There is already trust in Ballard. C.J. Stroud trusted him as a receiver at his pro-day, and albeit in shorts, Ballard did not look out of place. On top of that early momentum, Ballard scored a crucial touchdown on a double move that showed off the work he has put in as a route runner to go with his high end speed. One play and a few catches against air are not enough to show he belongs on the field, to Hartline consistency is key

“You’ve got to make sure there’s not a fall-off if you’re gonna get an opportunity to be on the field on Saturday,” Hartline said this offseason.

Hartline alluded to him being six months behind where he expected him to be, but with a few injury bumps early that can halt progress. That pissed off Hartline because he feels Ballard is not living up to expectations. That does not mean he can’t get caught up in the progress department, especially now that there is extra reps. Ryan Day believes he has the potential and now it is time for him to live up to it.

“You can see his speed, you can see his change of direction. Even at the workout the other day, he caught a lot of people’s eyes. So he has the ability and hopefully if he can continue to make plays like he did today, then he can start producing for us,” Day said about Ballard.

This is opportunity to join his fellow classmates, and take the room by storm to close out his career the next two seasons. For the Buckeyes he has a different skill set than what is on the field already, and there is value in that – if he can prove he belongs on the field regularly.

Xavier Johnson will have an expanded role

Last season, the player who caught the touchdown to take the lead against Notre Dame was not one of the 10 top-150 recruits at receiver. It was former walk-on Xavier Johnson.

Johnson finished the year with 297 yards of total offense on 25 touches. His best work came on the 71 yard touchdown run against Indiana where he made every Hoosier defender miss, and his most important work came on his touchdown catch out of the backfield against Georgia in the College Football Playoff.

Johnson has played running back, cornerback, and wide receiver to go along with being a special team ace on kick off coverage. His Swiss Army Knife capabilities have been well-documented and this year is his opportunity to go past surprising people. For Johnson, he showed he deserves a legitimate role in the offense. When he had the ball in his hands last year, good things happened.

“Xavier Johnson is a really good receiver and a really good running back. So it’s our job to find ways to use that,” Hartline said.

Johnson will have his share of competition at both running back and receiver, but ideally there is a place to integrate him in to situations to create confusion for defenses. Last season Ohio State used Johnson to motion into the backfield, or out of the backfield to receiver. This level of versatility is valuable, and the Buckeyes would be best using it in a way similar to last season.

For Johnson, showing NFL scouts he can do both well at the college level and continues performing on special teams, there is a lot he can do for franchises at the pro level. This is the same case for Ohio State, and if he continues to perform on Saturdays, there is no reason he should not continue to get more opportunities on the field.

The freshmen will surpass the second year receivers

This is not a hot take. Noah Rogers was the talk of the town after two practices and Carnell Tate already removed his black stripe. The competitive nature of this class is already coming into fruition, and with a consistently banged up second year group, there is a window for the incoming guys to show that when the current stars go, they should be up next.

Caleb Burton was hurt in the first spring practice and Kyion Grayes was unable to participate in the first scrimmage. As the old adage goes, the best ability is availability, and if the second year Buckeyes can’t stay healthy, there will be additional opportunities for the freshmen receivers.

There is not a lot to go on, and there will be a ton of weight put on the next few scrimmages. Hartline mentioned the professionalism and willingness to learn from the freshman as ways he sees them as a different group. There was now slow playing them along, they came ready to go. That is one of the most ringing endorsements for a group Hartline has ever given, and Hartline does not give endorsements if they are not warranted.

Kaleb Brown will be the second year player who finds a role

When reading through the first scrimmage observations, the name Kaleb Brown kept popping up as one of the best performers of the day. Both quarterbacks frequently targeted him in key situations, including the red zone drills. Brown was returning punts and playing with the ones, but that was mostly due to the injuries of players ahead of him.

Being healthy gave him an opportunity to get a high volume set of reps with both quarterbacks and he lived up to the moment. Scoring touchdowns in key situations is not easy, and he set up a pair of other touchdowns with big gains. If he shows a routine for making explosive plays in practice, the Buckeyes will find ways to get involved.

Brown has obviously positioned himself well to be the punt returner, and if he excels at that he sets himself up for more future opportunities. Think back to Egbuka his freshman season. He returned kicks and got on the field. Even in a role that is on the field any where from six to 10 times, there is an immense value to earning that trust from the coaching staff.

Even if this doesn’t carve out a consistent role in the receiver rotation, there is plenty of room for him to work his way into being a player next in line after Harrison Jr., Egbuka, Fleming, and Johnson move on to the next level, there will be a list of positions to to be filled. Brown has a different skillset than the rest of the room, and his future work out of the slot will be built on a successful spring and fall behind the scenes.

The receiver room is the least of the worries when it comes to Ohio State due to Brian Hartline’s elite recruiting. That does not mean there is not a lot to talk about in regards to the position with two of the top three returning receivers out for the spring with injuries. When Fleming and Egbuka return, it is pretty safe to assume that they will be pencilled back into their starting roles, but the pecking order behind them has a lot left to decipher.

The hope would be that Ohio State’s receiver room could progress through spring with their health, especially given the fact the Buckeyes have two quarterbacks competing for the starting job. Without the health at the top of room though, the Buckeyes have an opportunity to build depth and take a look at what’s next in a key position.

The Buckeyes have older guys like Jayden Ballard and Xavier Johnson looking to solidify their roles this season. They also have younger guys trying to make the most of the additional reps to show that they are capable of taking over the mantle. This spring is huge for a variety of players and the future of the position.

Brian Hartline has done an incredible job building out the receiver room. Now it’s time for the iron-sharpens-iron mantra to take a foothold and show which receivers will be next in line.