Garrett Wilson’s Move Inside Could Mean Big Numbers For Buckeyes

Garrett Wilson had a pretty good true freshman season for Ohio State in 2020.

He finished fourth on the team with 30 receptions, fourth with 432 yards receiving, and fourth with five touchdowns. It might not look like much, but it was the best true freshman performance for a Buckeye wideout in over 20 years.

Wilson split time outside with Binjimen Victor at the X receiver spot last year and was increasingly effective as the season went on. He caught three passes for 118 yards and a touchdown against Michigan, and added four catches for 47 yards in the playoffs against Clemson.

His effectiveness outside made it a bit of a surprise when Wilson was seen working inside at the slot this spring.

Turns out, this was something that receivers coach Brian Hartline had been wanting to do for a while. After last season, Hartline and head coach Ryan Day had a talk about where each receiver could be most productive, and for Hartline that meant putting Wilson in the slot.

Since Urban Meyer’s arrival at Ohio State in 2012 and continuing with Day currently, whichever Buckeye is manning the slot is generally going to see the ball more than any of the other receivers.

The only seasons where a slot receiver didn’t lead the Buckeyes in catches in that span came in 2014 and 2015 thanks to Michael Thomas, who is now running through the NFL like a laundromat through detergent.

Moving Wilson into the slot may be questionable to some because of how effective he was in one-on-one situations last year. He turned 50/50 balls into 80/20 balls and displayed an uncanny knack for coming down with the football in very difficult situations.  

According to Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, however, those skills can be just as utilized in the slot.

“Inside is the same deal,” Wilson said this spring. “If you watch over time, them inside guys get matched up. If you’re strong enough to block a nickel, linebacker, safety guy, but then that’s the guy that’s got the matchup. Some of the kids through the years, like [former Oklahoma receiver] Ryan Broyles had 131 catches playing slot. And he was trying to score every time and we were trying to throw it to him every time because he could go and he can make you miss.

“And he was a matchup issue because now you don’t want to put a corner in there. You make them go three corners. So the best matchup sometimes is who gets matched on the Mike backer, because he’s a bigger guy, or who gets matched up on safety. So even though Garrett can make all those acrobatic plays outside, those are neat matchups when you get on those nickels and the safeties that can do some really cool things in the pass game.”

Expecting 131 receptions for Wilson is probably overboard, but when sharing that same space in 2018, Parris Campbell and KJ Hill combined for 160 catches and over 1,900 yards for the Buckeyes.

There is certainly a cause for defensive coordinators to be concerned and for the Buckeyes’ offensive braintrust to be excited by the possibilities. Wilson is unlike other slot receivers Ohio State has utilized since Ryan Day took over the offense back in 2017.

The sophomore may not have the straightline speed of Parris Campbell (few do), but he is dynamic after the catch and more than fast enough to turn a 5-yard screen into a 55-yard touchdown.

Wilson has shown that he possesses the talent and skill set to thrive at any receiver position. Being in the slot in a Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson offense, however, could put him into the Ohio State record books sooner rather than later.

A similar thing happened with the aforementioned Ryan Broyles, who was a two-time All-American at Oklahoma, and particularly productive in Kevin Wilson’s final season as the Sooners’ offensive coordinator with those 131 catches for 1,622 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Life in the slot can be pretty good, especially when you are one of the focal points of the offense.

And who better to explain what life could be like this year for Wilson than the guy who caught those 131 passes.

“It’s any receiver’s dream,” Broyles, who has now moved on to a successful career in real estate and PR in his post-football life, told Buckeye Scoop.

Broyles looks back on his time at Oklahoma fondly, especially with Kevin Wilson calling the plays.

“Oh, it was great. It was 2007, I redshirted, and then in 2008 we really turned it on,” he said. “We had players all across the board, on offense and defense. We started that hurry-up offense. Coach Wilson definitely called some great plays for us and he knew the caliber of players he had on the team.”

But getting to that dream doesn’t just happen, and it won’t for Garrett Wilson. In fact, this is one of those situations where the wake-up call actually comes before the dream.

In order to be extremely productive in the slot like Broyles, who finished his career as the FBS’ all-time leading pass catcher with 349 receptions, it takes more than just catching the ball. It also requires being on the field as much as possible.

Playing all three downs as a slot receiver is going to be a new experience for Wilson. Sure, he may be matched up against linebackers and safeties in the passing game, but those are the same guys he’s going to have to be blocking on running players.

For Wilson, just as it did for Broyles, it will come down to how much he wants to be on the field.

“It’s an effort thing. Everyone wants to be on the field the whole time, but if you can’t get the job done blocking, then you’re not gonna be out there,” Broyles explained. “It’s just a mental hurdle that you have to clear and then I think once you get out there, you play ball. It’s just effort, it’s angles, and just the wherewithal to get it done.”

Playing ball is Wilson’s specialty, and that doesn’t discount blocking.

In fact, the first time Ryan Day ever noticed Wilson was because of his blocking. While scouting Wilson’s Lake Travis High School quarterback teammate Matthew Baldwin, Day took notice of a wide receiver blocking a defender off of the field and into a tree.

Day asked who the receiver was.

“That’s Garrett Wilson,” came the reply.

Wilson will need that same tenacity this season in the slot because he is going to deal with all kinds of different shapes and sizes lining up across from him.

But they are also going to have to deal with him. And no matter how they decide to defend him, there will always be an area to attack.

“It opens things up,” Broyles said. “For a quarterback, the slot receiver is the quarterback’s safety net. So teams start to understand ‘okay, if we get pressure on the quarterback, the ball has to come out quick,’ and so that’s what we started doing early and often.

“And then they’ll tighten you up and then they’re saying ‘hey, we want your quarterback to drop back now so we can get to him,’ so then you’ve got one-on-one coverage outside.”

With Ohio State’s skill at receiver this year, one-on-one situations with a guy like junior receiver Chris Olave doesn’t seem like a very good idea. Leaving areas vacated by a blitzer can have its drawbacks as well.

Defenses will also have to decide if they are going to bring in a third cornerback to deal with Wilson in the slot. If they do, that makes them weaker against the run.

Ohio State will still be a run-heavy team, so more often than not, the defense will be defending the run. As such, taking a bigger defender off the field wouldn’t be a good idea.

And that’s even assuming the Buckeye offense will slow down enough to allow the defense to substitute. Under Wilson in 2010, the Sooners were relentless, and 131 times that year, Broyles was the beneficiary.

No matter how teams try to match up with a talented slot receiver like Ryan Broyles — or Garrett Wilson — the advantage is always going to go to the offense. The rest just comes down to execution.

“When we’re passing the ball, that’s what you want. There’s a lot of space in the middle and I definitely utilized that,” Broyles said. “But yeah, it’s a mismatch. The receiver knows that, the coach knows that, the quarterback knows that.

“Most times it’s easy to get double teams, and that started to happen to me later in my career in the slot. But yeah, if there’s a linebacker over top of you, or you’ve got a slower safety that can’t maneuver as well, you can lick your chops and hopefully you can get vertical on them.”

That ability to get vertical is also something Ohio State hasn’t necessarily had out of the slot a great deal. This year, there will be more of it.

In fact, as it concerns Garrett Wilson, there will be more of everything. And that is going to be a very good thing for the Ohio State Buckeyes.