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Players to Watch: Jayden Ballard is looking to break out and join his peers on the national stage

Ballard was a high four-star recruit in the 2021 class but has seemingly become Ohio State’s ‘forgotten’ wide receiver.

Joseph Scheller/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Every day from now until the start of the season, Land-Grant Holy Land is highlighting Ohio State football players that you should be watching this season. Check out all of our ”Player to Watch” articles to get ready for the season opener against Indiana.

Coming out of famed Massillon Washington High School (OH), as part of the 2021 (football) recruiting class, Jayden Ballard was a certified blue-chipper. He was the No. 55 overall player and No. 4 wide receiver, ranked well ahead of many players who have long since accomplished great things at the college level — including one current teammate who we will get to shortly. A long-striding burner with great body control and ‘Mossing’ ability, he committed to Ohio State as part of their loaded ’21 class that also included fellow WR Emeka Egbuka (WR1), Quinn Ewers (QB1), J.T. Tuimoloau (DL1), Jack Sawyer, Donovan Jackson, and TreVeyon Henderson, among others... Yeah, it was a good one.

Also in the Buckeyes’ 2021 class was a fella named Marvin Harrison Jr. MHJ was a highly coveted recruit as well but finished more than 100 spots behind or below Ballard in the ’21 rankings. This could lead one to believe that recruiting rankings are incredibly flawed, because well, they are. But my point in bringing up MHJ is to circle back around to the perceived talent and upside of Ballard.

The latter was not just some local throw-in, added to supplement or back up the incredible duo of Egbuka and MHJ. No, he was a player specifically targeted by Brian Hartline, who only attempts to bring in the brightest receiving stars. Simply put: Ballard was — and presumably still is — a legitimate talent.

But said talent has not yet begun to translate to on-field results. Ballard has just nine receptions in two seasons as a Buckeye. He has never really ascended past WR4 or WR5 on Ohio State’s depth chart. And he now finds himself in the deepest WR room in the country, with at least half a dozen others fighting just for backup reps. Positional competition is nothing new for the former Massillon Tiger, but it is a major hurdle he has yet to clear. If he fails to do so in 2023, he risks falling out of OSU’s rotation entirely.

That’s the ‘bad’ news. The good news? Well, there is plenty of it. For starters, Ballard is (presumably) still the same talented player he was in high school. He has not suffered any injury setbacks in Columbus, and his understanding of both the game and the WR position has improved, thanks to watching and learning from the likes of Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and others. And do not forget about the coaching and teaching(s) of Brian Hartline. I mean, you want to talk about attending a master class... Ballard could not have asked for better training or a better apprenticeship.

Beyond natural talent and firsthand experience gained, Ballard has also spent two-plus years learning and becoming familiar with the Ohio State offense. This is no small advantage, as we’ve seen a guy like Xavier Johnson rise through the internal Scarlet and Gray ranks primarily because he knows where to be and when to be there. Not saying Weapon X lacks talent, but knowledge is power. Johnson has it, and so does Ballard. At least more so than Carnell Tate or Brandon Inniss, just two of the players vying for reps behind MHJ, Egbuka, and to a lesser extent, Julian Fleming.

So is 2023 going to be the year/season during which Ballard breaks through? Or will he fall further back in the pack, and eventually be forgotten altogether? Ok, so the last part of that previous question was a bit extreme, but you get my point: If not now, then when for Ballard?

Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I, for one, think that the third-year WR from Northeast Ohio is going to be a difference-maker this season. To what extent, I am not sure yet. But I believe in Ballard’s talent. And I also believe that he could be a great complement to MHJ and Ebguka; perhaps even more so than Fleming, who I have been pounding the table for since he arrived in Columbus.

Why so? Well, while the knock against Ballard has always been his underdeveloped route tree, his ability to go and get the deep ball has never been in question. Like former Buckeye Devin Smith – a fellow Massillon Washington Tiger (!) – Ballard is known as, or at least perceived to be, a home run hitter. Meaning (Devin) Smith-esque, able to take the top off a defense, etc. And this current OSU team could certainly use another player with that skill set.

The above sentence might sound crazy because MHJ is an alien and Egbuka can do just about anything on a football field. Still, the former draws a ton of attention wherever he goes, and the latter is arguably more dangerous as a slot/YAC guy. The Buckeyes do not have another proven WR who is capable of consistently torching teams deep. That is not Fleming’s game, that is certainly not Johnson’s game, and Tate/Inniss/others have yet to even see the field.

Ballard has the potential to be the next Smith. Or perhaps he just develops into a complementary piece who can take advantage of the attention paid to others. Either way, he would not require significant volume to do so... Which is good because MHJ and Egbuka will likely soak up hundreds of targets. But Smith made an impact with his big plays, as evidenced by his 30 TD on 121 career catches, at 20.7 yards per pop. Is Ballard going to score 12 TD on 33 catches like Smith did in 2014? Probably not. But if the former can do a lot with a little (volume), then he could become a tremendous asset for Ohio State.

Lastly, and of greater significance, is that I am not the only one who believes in Ballard. He earned rave reviews during the spring, from both coaches and teammates, cementing himself as a breakout candidate. And those guys, Ballard’s coaches and peers, know a thing or two. So do not be surprised if he proves them right by becoming a household name in 2023.