Now that spring football is over, it’s time to look back at exactly what we just saw. We’ll finish going over each position group today, discussing what was learned and what still needs to happen for the Buckeyes. Up finally to conclude the series will be the Ohio State wide receivers.
Quick Position Overview
The Buckeyes lose a pair of first-round NFL Draft picks in Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave but they still may have the best group of receivers in the nation. Junior Jaxon Smith-Njigba is the odds-on favorite to win the Biletnikoff Award this year as the nation’s finest receiver. Sophomores Marvin Harrison and Emeka Egbuka showed promise in the Rose Bowl and expectations are very high for the both of them. Junior Julian Fleming is the guy who started twice over the previous two seasons when the Buckeyes were without Olave. Behind those four are four true freshmen, one redshirt freshman in Jayden Ballard, and a pair of veterans looking to make an impact in Kam Babb and walk-on Xavier Johnson.
Expectations Going In
The expectations going into camp were that Jaxon Smith-Njigba would do what he does, but more importantly Julian Fleming, Marvin Harrison, and Emeka Egbuka would fall into place as the next wave of playmakers. Jayden Ballard was expected to showcase his next-level speed and athletic ability after a year in the program. Freshmen Kyion Grayes and Caleb Burton would do a lot of learning and make the occasional wow play. And more than expecting, people were simply hoping that Kam Babb would be as close to full speed as he’s been in years.
Reality Coming Out
The reality coming out was that things went really, really well for Kam Babb until the end of camp when he had a minor injury, but he will be good to go for the season. Marvin Harrison, Emeka Egbuka, and Julian Fleming all did what was expected as well. The freshmen had flashes but they still have plenty of work to do. Jayden Ballard got more and more consistent. Basically, things went like they always do under receivers coach Brian Hartline’s watch.
Xavier Johnson has never been a surprise to any of his position coaches — of which he’s had a few. The walk-on out of Cincinnati came to Ohio State as a high school receiver but spent time at both cornerback and running back before settling back in at receiver. He had a handful of catches in the spring game, prompting many people to ask, “Who is that No. 10?” Brian Hartline made special mention of Johnson’s play this spring and it shouldn’t be considered just lip service. Johnson has been a starter on special teams for the past three seasons and is simply just a dependable football player.
How large is the wide receiver rotation going to be? The number starts at four with Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Julian Fleming, Marvin Harrison, and Emeka Egbuka. Don’t get hung up on who starts because players will move around and play different spots. Can this rotation be six deep like it was basically every year from 2014 to 2018? Can Jayden Ballard or Kam Babb or Xavier Johnson or one of the freshmen grow the rotation from four to five or six? Is six even necessary? How often do you want to take Smith-Njigba off the field, anyway? (Probably not that often.) Still, Brian Hartline will have options if he wants them. It will be interesting to see how many receivers earn regular snaps when games are still in doubt.
So Now What?
So now the freshmen continue to grow where they can. The Buckeyes won’t need any of the freshmen to be in the rotation immediately. They will all be afforded the Chris Olave track of easing into things and then making an impact in November and beyond. That same track worked well for Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison last year.
How do you keep everybody happy? Leaving spring last year, the Buckeyes had four receivers they felt really good about. And then one of them transferred to Alabama. Brian Hartline doesn’t have a selfish room, but players want to play. Fortunately, with as much as this offense throws the ball around, the Buckeyes could have four guys with 40+ catches this year. When you have a quarterback like CJ Stroud, if you’re open he will find you. The larger key may simply making sure that the playcalling spreads around the guy who is the first read in the progressions.
Are We Sure?
Are we sure there are enough footballs to go around?
“Yeah, I think that list is pretty extensive. 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. I mean, Sam Wiglusz 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 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 fill that void, plus some.” — Brian Hartline on who else impressed this spring besides Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
|18 Marvin Harrison | Sophomore | 6-3 205|
|Marvin Harrison caught three touchdowns in the Rose Bowl as a true freshman last year. He finished the season with 11 catches for 139 yards and three scores. He will be a red-zone threat this year.|
|1 Kam Babb | Graduate | 6-0 205 OR|
|Kamryn Babb has missed three seasons recovering from knee injuries. He was fairly healthy in 2020 but is still looking for his first career catch. Having him here at X is a process-of-elimination guess.|
|10 Xavier Johnson | Redshirt Senior | 6-2 215|
|Xavier Johnson is a walk-on who chose Ohio State over scholarships from places like Iowa State and Cincinnati. He has also played cornerback and running back but Brian Hartline loves him at receiver.|
|12 Caleb Burton | Freshman | 5-11 169|
|Caleb Burton is a true freshman who enrolled early. He is a five-star prospect out of Texas, which isn’t new to the Buckeyes. (see: Wilson, Garrett; Smith-Njigba, Jaxon).|
|4 Julian Fleming | Junior | 6-2 207|
|Julian Fleming was the No. 1 receiver in the 2020 recruiting class. He has 19 career receptions and scored a touchdown in the Rose Bowl. He was Chris Olave’s backup when healthy.|
|9 Jayden Ballard | Redshirt Freshman | 6-2 195|
|Strength coach Mickey Marotti said this month that Jayden Ballard is the fastest Buckeye on offense. He played in three games last year as a true freshman and caught one pass for four yards.|
|17 Kyion Grayes | Freshman | 6-0 175|
|Kyion Grayes is a true freshman out of Arizona. He enrolled early and did well this spring. He will remind you of Chris Olave, and that was even before he chose to wear Olave’s old number.|
|NA Kojo Antwi | Freshman | 6-0 190|
|Kojo Antwi will arrive this summer. He is here at Z because having five Xs listed and only three Zs bothered my OCD. He can — and will — play wherever, just like everybody else on this depth chart.|
|11 Jaxon Smith-Njigba | Junior | 6-0 198|
|Jaxon Smith-Njigba isn’t the fastest guy and he isn’t the biggest guy but he is the best guy and that’s all that matters. He caught a school-record 95 passes for a school-record 1,606 yards last year.|
|2 Emeka Egbuka | Sophomore | 6-1 205|
|Emeka Egbuka showed flashes of pure electricity last year and will have a much larger role this year. He can play any of the receiver positions. He finished with nine receptions for 191 yards last year.|
|NA Kaleb Brown | Freshman | 5-10 195|
|Kaleb Brown will arrive in the summer. He is an intriguing prospect who played both running back and receiver in high school. It will be interesting to see how he gets used, and how quickly.|
[Jaxon Smith-Njigba header photo courtesy of Ohio State Dept. of Athletics.]