It has been a few years since the Ohio State receiver rotation went six deep on a regular basis, but what was once old could become new again.
Under Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes regularly played six receivers, going two deep at all three receiver positions. The last time they did so was in 2018 with KJ Hill, Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin, Johnnie Dixon, Austin Mack, and Binjimen Victor.
The depth since then hasn’t really allowed for the same kind of “line changes.” That’s not because there weren’t enough receivers, but rather the difference between the top of the depth chart and the rest of the depth chart was too great. If coaches are going to rotate players, they don’t want a drop off.
For OSU receivers coach Brian Hartline, he could be closing in on having that kind of parity in his room once again.
“Yeah, it definitely has a higher probability of that,” he said this spring. “Last year, we were really kind of in position to have a good four going. And then the fourth guy kind of had some injuries and stuff, so it just kind of didn’t materialize, which is whatever. But we’re definitely, I think, closer to that for sure this year. Definitely a four. Working on five. Working on six. To see how many guys — again it’s not gonna be given to anybody, but when they earn it, they earn it. But there’s definitely a much higher probability of that being the case.”
Losing Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave from last year’s team leaves a void, but it also has created opportunities for more than just a pair of replacements.
The Buckeyes return leading receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, as well as junior Julian Fleming, second-year players Marvin Harrison, Emeka Egbuka, and Jayden Ballard, fifth-year seniors Kamryn Babb and Xavier Johnson, and four true freshmen.
Smith-Njigba, Fleming, Harrison, and Egbuka are all expected to play a lot this season, and when asked who else had stepped up this spring other than his lone returning starter, Hartline rattled off a list of names.
“I think that list is pretty extensive,” he said. “I think that Julian Fleming is doing a great job. I think Emeka’s doing a great job. I think Marvin’s doing a great job. I think Jayden Ballard’s doing a great job. Kam had a good spring, got dinged up towards the end. Xavier Johnson has done a great job. There’s an extended list of guys that I feel very comfortable being on the field. And obviously we’ll have our offseason training and we’ll have fall camp and whatnot, but we’ve got a great solid group of guys. And I know we lost two great ones, but I think that we have a lot of guys in our room that can can fill that void, plus some.”
With the way that Harrison and Egbuka finished last season, expectations are high for the both of them. Egbuka had several moments throughout last year on both offense and special teams. He had the longest reception of the season (85) for the Buckeyes and also led the Big Ten in kickoff return average (29.0). In fact, he tied for the second on the team with 10 plays of 30 yards or more last year. That number was also good for fifth in the Big Ten. With more snaps available to him this year, Egbuka should do several levels better than his nine receptions for 191 yards last season.
Harrison, meanwhile, showcased his abilities in the Rose Bowl to the tune of three touchdown catches.
“They’re great players. Very cerebral players,” Hartline said of his two sophomores. “I think that they’re everything you want in a young man to be in your room. I think that we really have a really great four, five, six guys in that room, and those are two of the guys that are a part of that group. But you really can’t ask for any better individuals and they’ve just continued to get better and better week to week and year to year.”
Julian Fleming has yet to have one of those breakout games but has two starts to his credit. He missed four games last season, but over the last five games he played just about as many snaps as both Harrison and Egbuka combined.
With a top four known, the Buckeyes just need to find two more receivers that can be counted on to keep defensive backs on their heels. The good news is that the versatility of the room and the cross-training that goes on means that Hartline will be able to move the pieces around and fit them into whatever kind of rotation emerges.
“We spend a lot of time with our top four or five, six guys, moving them and putting them in different spots all spring,” Hartline said. “So we’re having Marvin in the slot, having Julian in the slot, having Jaxon outside and Emeka, everybody, all of that. So these guys are very well versed, regardless of position in the offense.”