The Ohio State football team opened spring practice last week with some uncertainty surrounding the slot receiver position.
K.J. Hill, a record-setting pass catcher who started last season, is off to the NFL. Left as the most experienced returner, former walk-on C.J. Saunders is still awaiting a decision from the NCAA about his petition for a sixth season of eligibility. Another backup, Jaelen Gill, caught only six passes in 2019.
But the Buckeyes may have uncovered one possible option.
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During their first practice, they lined up Garrett Wilson at slot receiver.
As a freshman, Wilson rotated as one of their outside receivers, a spot that fit his skill set. He possesses considerable leaping ability, and he made a series of acrobatic catches on the perimeter of the field last fall.
They followed a familiar script. A cornerback was covering Wilson, trailing him along the sideline. When a lofted pass arrived, Wilson sprang into the air to snag it over the defensive back.
None was perhaps as memorable as a mid-air snag over Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick on Ohio State’s opening drive in the Fiesta Bowl when he was high enough that his knee pads reached the height of Kendrick’s facemask.
According to Pro Football Focus, 21 of Wilson’s 30 receptions fell between the yard-line numbers and sideline, including all five of his touchdown catches.
But the Buckeyes need help in the slot, and coach Ryan Day has thought Wilson could thrive in the role ahead of his sophomore season. The 6-foot receiver is athletic on the ground as well as in the air.
“His ability to catch the ball, put it away, run after the catch so quickly, is something you want out of a slot receiver,” Day said. “And running option routes, setting up defenders and understanding space and everything like that, it happens a lot faster in there. But I think his skill set fits that.”
Citing Wilson’s high school basketball background in his hometown of Austin, Texas, Day also noted that “his spatial awareness is off the charts.”
While Wilson was with the first-team offense as slot receiver during the opening practice last week that was open to reporters, others followed him in the rotation. Mookie Cooper and Jaxon Smith Njigba, a pair of early-enrollee freshmen, got cracks.
Day plans to give others on the roster consideration to emerge as the slot receiver, and Wilson can rotate back to one of the outside receiver spots, potentially pairing opposite Chris Olave.
But Wilson is likely to get a long look in the slot.
Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson pointed to Ryan Broyles, a former receiver at Oklahoma, as an example for why Garrett Wilson might evolve into an even more productive pass catcher. When Broyles caught a nation-leading 131 passes in 2010, he did so out of the slot.
Broyles is 2 inches shorter than Wilson, but also carried a burst of speed that presented potential mismatches.
“He could go, and he could make you miss,” Kevin Wilson said. “And he was a matchup. Because now you don’t want to put a cornerback in there. Sometimes the best matchups are who gets matched on the Mike (middle) linebacker because he’s a bigger guy, or who gets matched up on a safety.
“Even though Garrett can make all those acrobatic plays on the outside, those are neat matchups when you get on those nickels and safeties that can do some real cool things in the pass game.”
Hill was considered more of a possession receiver when he lined up as the slot receiver. But Ohio State previously featured a speedier slot receiver in 2018 with Parris Campbell, who had a team-high 90 receptions that season.