Goals to catch
Ohio State wide receiver K.J. Hill had heard the rumblings in December.
Dwayne Haskins Jr., the record-setting passer for the Buckeyes, was prepared to leave early for the NFL, and his backup, Tate Martell, was mulling a transfer.
If Hill returned for his senior season, who would throw him the ball?
“I needed a quarterback,” Hill said. “It was nobody here.”
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Coach Ryan Day sought to assuage his concerns. With the Buckeyes in southern California to prepare for their season finale in the Rose Bowl, Day revealed that big plans were on the horizon.
Georgia’s talented freshman quarterback, Justin Fields, who had put his name in the transfer portal earlier that month, planned to join the Buckeyes.
On Jan. 4, Fields announced he was headed to Ohio State, and Hill announced only four days later that he was staying for his final season of eligibility.
The two players are linked entering this season. While Fields served as a selling point for Hill during his deliberations, the receiver will serve as a key target for the quarterback. Fields is widely expected to win the starting job during training camp, which begins Friday.
Three of Ohio State's top four receivers last season were seniors, leaving Hill as the top returning pass catcher and increasingly in the spotlight.
Hill has displayed notable consistency throughout his college career, totaling 144 catches over the previous three seasons. He sits 47 shy of reaching David Boston atop Ohio State's career receptions list. He is currently sixth, two catches from moving within the top five.
“I mean, I don’t have words for it,” Hill said. “It’s like, ‘Wow David Boston, people like that.' You just think, wow. K.J. Hill is now a name in there people are going to be talking about. And that’s one of the reasons why I came back, I want to leave my legacy."
As productive as Hill was in previous seasons, he was also sure-handed, an important trait to help a first-year starting quarterback.
The Arkansas native reeled in 68 receptions on 93 targets in 2018, a catch rate of 73.1 percent, according to statistics collected by SB Nation. For Ohio State receivers targeted at least 20 times last season, only Parris Campbell had a higher catch rate.
Hill, though, has never been the No. 1 receiver for the Buckeyes.
Perhaps ironically, his climb toward the top of the school record books has come while being overshadowed by other NFL-bound teammates.
Asked at Big Ten media days last month if he had been under-appreciated at Ohio State, Hill didn’t disagree with the premise.
He didn’t appear to mind, either.
“I had a deep receiving room,” Hill said. “You had to talk about Parris Campbell, you had to talk about Terry McLaurin, you had to talk about Johnnie Dixon, Bin Victor, Austin Mack, everybody. It is what it is, but at the end of the day, I just play my game.”
It is within reason Hill could also overtake Michael Jenkins this season as the school’s all-time leader in receiving yards. He needs 1,203 yards to do so, though he has never totaled more than 865 yards in a season. That was as a junior last fall.
Hill reflected on his remaining goals with the Buckeyes. He knew where his past production had placed him, but he brought up other aspirations.
“Mainly I want to lead my team,” Hill said. “I want to be the leader that leads the team to a Big Ten championship and also a national championship.”