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Player to Watch: Ohio State’s Swiss Army Knife Xavier Johnson

The former walk-on made a name for himself in 2022 with his strong play on offense and special teams.

Indiana v Ohio State

From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about players to watch this upcoming season. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”Player to Watch” articles here.

While guys like C.J. Stroud, Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka deservedly received most of the attention on Ohio State’s prolific offense last season, the player that came up the biggest when needed most was Xavier Johnson. After receiving just four carries over his first four seasons as a Buckeye, Johnson saw 25 touches last season, totaling nearly 300 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns.

Johnson’s value to the offense goes so much deeper than what you’ll see in his numbers from the 2022 season. With injuries to wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba and running backs TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams during the year, Johnson ended up doing a little bit of everything for the Ohio State offense. About the only things Johnson didn’t do on offense for the Buckeyes last year was snap the football and throw a pass.

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

In the season-opener against Notre Dame, the Ohio State offense had a hard time getting much going in the first half, heading into halftime trailing the Fighting Irish 10-7. Some of those struggles were due to the hamstring injury Jaxon Smith-Njigba suffered. Eventually Stroud and the Buckeye offense found some traction in the second half, but not many fans would have expected Xavier Johnson to be the one to score the go-ahead touchdown in the game.

Johnson caught a 24-yard touchdown pass from Stroud with 17 seconds left in the third quarter to cap off a 10-play, 70-yard drive that gave the Buckeyes a 14-10 lead.

Along with his contributions on offense, Johnson also was one of the most reliable special teams players for Ohio State last season. In back-to-back weeks, Johnson was the one to recover blocked punts by Lathan Ransom against Indiana and Maryland. The punt block recovery against the Terrapins would lead to a Dallan Hayden rushing touchdown a couple plays later to give the Buckeyes a 17-13 lead.

Following a Maryland touchdown early in the fourth quarter, Johnson returned the kickoff 46 yards, which would result in another Hayden rushing touchdown a few plays later that extended Ohio State’s lead to double digits.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 31 Semifinal Game Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

To cap off an outstanding senior season, the former walk-on hauled in a 37-yard touchdown pass late in the second quarter of the Peach Bowl against Georgia to give the Buckeyes a 28-24 lead heading into halftime. Johnson finished the game with three catches for 43 yards, and was given six carries that totaled 28 yards. Even though the season didn’t end with a trip to the national title game, it still was a very successful campaign for Johnson, who went from being barely known by fans to a fan favorite.

With the depth at wide receiver and running back for Ohio State, it would have been understandable if Johnson had decided to either declare for the NFL Draft or enter the transfer portal. Instead, Johnson decided it would be in his best interests to return to Columbus for another season with the Buckeyes. What made another year at Ohio State attractive for Johnson was the plan head coach Ryan Day and offensive coordinator Brian Hartline laid out for how he would be utilized in the offense.

Unfortunately, Ohio State fans didn’t get an idea of what Day and Hartline had in mind for how they would use Johnson this year, since the wide receiver/running back missed most of spring camp because of a foot injury. There isn’t any worry about Johnson not being on the field when Ohio State’s season begins in early September, as the coaching staff was just being cautious with the injury.

Along with being a factor for Ohio State on offense and special teams, it is likely Johnson will be named a captain since he is one of the three longest-tenured players currently on Ohio State’s roster. Even though the captains are named by a team vote, many have raved about some of the leadership Johnson provides, and Hartline has likened Johnson to Kam Babb when it comes to the type of leadership he has seen from him.

We got a preview of how Johnson can operate in an offense with guys like Harrison, Egbuka, Henderson and others last year. This year is going to be even more interesting to watch since even more will be expected out of the fifth-year standout. The tough part for opponents is Johnson can excel in all facets of the game, so it makes the Buckeye offense even tougher to prepare for.

Even though some of the bigger names that will go higher in the NFL Draft will get more attention, Xavier Johnson might be the most important player on the Ohio State offense.