The Buckeyes go into the offseason needing to replace two of the best wide receivers in Ohio State history. We have already discussed how OSU will go about replacing Garrett Wilson, so now it’s time to give the same treatment to Chris Olave, who is arguably the most underrated receiver in school history.
Olave is only the second Buckeye to ever record three seasons of at least 700 yards receiving (Michael Jenkins) and his 2,702 yards receiving are good for fifth all-time in Ohio State history. He is behind just Jenkins (2,898) at the top, followed by David Boston (2,855), Gary Williams (2,792), and Cris Carter (2,725). Had COVID not cut OSU’s 2020 season short, Olave would undoubtedly own the top spot overall.
As it is, Olave did finish his career as the school’s all-time touchdown receptions leader, finishing with 35. He is also third all-time in receptions (176), behind just KJ Hill (201) and Boston (191). He is also second all-time in 100-yard receiving games with 11. (Boston leads all-time with 14 (for now).)
The numbers suggest that Olave was mostly a deep threat, but the number of first-down markers he moved would actually confirm that he made plays all over the place. Regardless, it’s a ton of production to replace, but the Buckeyes do have some solid options waiting in the wings.
Perhaps one of them can be as quietly dominating as Chris Olave was.
The first question that needs to be answered is where will Jaxon Smith-Njigba be starting in 2022. For the purposes of this series, he is staying in the slot and will not be replacing either Garrett Wilson or Chris Olave. He’s going to leave that up to everybody else.
When Olave missed the 2020 Big Ten Championship Game, it was Julian Fleming who started in place of him. When Olave opted out of the 2022 Rose Bowl this past season, it was again Fleming who started in his place. Fleming will be entering his third season at Ohio State and it should be his healthiest yet. Shoulder issues have held him back, but as a full-time starter this coming season, he could finally be unleashed.
Emeka Egbuka was Smith-Njigba’s backup in 2021 as a true freshman, posting nine receptions for 191 yards. He also led the Big Ten with a 29-yard average on kickoff returns. Egbuka is too good to keep him behind Smith-Njigba for another year, unless a more concerted effort is going to be made to play him. Instead, it’s more likely that the two will be split up and one of them will go compete for Olave’s departed Z receiver position.
Jaylen Ballard is also a possibility. As a true freshman in 2021 he caught just one pass for four yards and ended up redshirting. He has drawn comparisons to former Buckeye Devin Smith, which should give you some kind of idea about his skill set. Fifth-year senior Kamryn Babb could also factor in here, though being around for so long he can really factor in anywhere if he’s healthy.
The Buckeyes also signed four receivers in the 2022 recruiting class. Kaleb Brown perhaps projects more to the slot, but any of the other three could end up at Z. When you watch Kyion Grayes, there’s a lot of Chris Olave to his game. He just gets open and makes plays down the field. Caleb Burton could project anywhere, as could Kojo Antwi. There is still a lot to shake out for receivers coach Brian Hartline.
And just for completion’s sake, we’ll go ahead and mention Marvin Harrison, Jr. here even though he’s likely starting next season as the Buckeyes’ X receiver.
Spring ball opens in a little over five weeks and the Buckeyes are going to have a talented handful of players vying to replace Chris Olave. Julian Fleming will be the most experienced of the group and those who have seen him in practice over his first two years are excited for what the future could hold with him getting more and more reps as a Buckeye.
This will also be Emeka Egbuka’s second spring in Columbus and he’s got a much better idea of what to expect. He has shown flashes of his abilities but now he’s going to be given more opportunity to shine. Expect plenty of talk this spring to involve Egbuka’s playmaking potential.
Spring football will also be an opportunity for Jaylen Ballard to get more involved. He was a bit behind Harrison and Egbuka development-wise, but he also has the ability to catch up due to his tremendous natural abilities. Kyion Grayes and Caleb Burton are both enrolled and will be involved this spring. In past years, both Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba impressed from day one in spring ball. Can either of the freshmen match that?
The Best Bet
The best bet here is Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming competing for the starting spot throughout spring and beyond. Regardless of who wins the job, however, both are going to play. The Buckeyes have four experienced and talented receivers who can make plays. Guys can move around and adjust roles, so don’t get too hung up on who the starting Z, X, or slots are. Brian Hartline always wants his guys to know all three receiver positions anyway. Perhaps the more intriguing question is whether or not anybody will force their way into a five- or six-man rotation next season. If they do, that would be a significant development.