Besides K.J. Hill’s friends and family, it would be interesting to see who else projected him to be Ohio State’s leading receiver at this point in the season. The list is probably short.
But forces and schemes have conspired to make the fourth-year junior a favorite target of J.T. Barrett heading into Ohio State's game Saturday at Iowa. And with fellow hybrid back Parris Campbell being knocked out of a second straight game last week because of a head bump and questionable for Saturday, Hill has emerged as the kick returner, too.
“You’re in the game and you don’t notice how much you’re touching the ball,” Hill said, referring to his career-high 12 catches for 102 yards and combined eight kickoff/punt returns for 143 yards last week in a 39-38 win over Penn State. “After the game, coach (Kevin) Wilson told me about it and I was like, ‘Man, that’s crazy,’ but I worked hard for it. I’ve just got to stay humble about that.”
That would be best, because as Barrett and Wilson, the offensive coordinator, said this week, Hill’s catch total was the result of the luck of the draw as much as it was targeting, even if he now leads the Buckeyes with 40 receptions.
“He’s playing a lot, it’s nice to see him step up because we needed him to,” Wilson said.
But so did most of the rest of the receiving corps, including Austin Mack, Johnnie Dixon, Terry McLaurin and C.J. Saunders, Wilson said.
“We’ve got about six, seven guys we need out there to play (like that),” he said. “It’s nice to see K.J. play a big game.”
What makes Hill a viable target, Barrett said, is his football IQ.
“I’ve always felt comfortable throwing the ball to K.J.,” Barrett said. “He’s one of those guys that understands zone and man (coverage) and spacing on the field. That makes it easy for me as the quarterback.
“Since he’s been here he’s just kind of developed to understand those things and what we’re trying to do on certain plays. Even if he’s not getting the ball, he has to create space. He understands that.”
It makes him valuable, especially in some of the wrinkles introduced to the passing game this season by Wilson and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day, especially on what has become an effective scheme, shallow crossing routes designed to free up one of several receivers involved.
“I feel like it’s unstoppable, that play, because you don’t know who’s getting the ball, you don’t know where people are going,” Hill said. “It’s just putting athletes in space. … It’s basically pick your poison, who you want to throw to, because it can’t be stopped.”
That also brings him to the challenge of keeping it rolling at Iowa, because the Hawkeyes are known for presenting one of the tighter underneath coverage units in the Big Ten, led by linebacker Josey Jewell.
“They have very good corners, and I feel like their linebackers, they’re coming downhill,” Hill said, smiling about that second part. “So they’re coming headfirst-type stuff. They’re aggressive; we respect them a lot, so we’re going into the game with a game plan to help win.”