Ohio State football: Emergence of capable slot receiver key for 2020 success

Joey Kaufman
Chris Olave, here hauling in a touchdown reception against Michigan, led Ohio State with 12 touchdown catches. He is expected to be a mainstay in 2020 as an outside receiver for the Buckeyes. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

As Ohio State opens spring football practice next week, The Dispatch will preview each position group. Today: Receivers and tight ends.

Returnees: WR Kamryn Babb, redshirt sophomore; TE Luke Farrell, senior; WR Jaelen Gill, redshirt sophomore; WR Ellijah Gardiner, junior; WR Jaylen Harris, senior; TE Cormontae Hamilton, redshirt sophomore; TE Jake Hausmann, senior; WR Chris Olave, junior; TE Jeremy Ruckert, junior; WR Jameson Williams, sophomore; WR Garrett Wilson, sophomore

Departures: TE Rashod Berry, WR K.J. Hill, WR Austin Mack, WR Binjimen Victor

Early-enrollee freshmen: WR Mookie Cooper, WR Julian Fleming, WR Gee Scott Jr., WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba

Summer-enrollee freshman: TE Joe Royer

Uncertain: WR C.J. Saunders

Ohio State’s struggles in the red zone in its season-ending loss to Clemson overshadowed the fact it was otherwise exceptionally proficient inside the 20-yard line last season.

The Buckeyes scored a touchdown on 59 of 67 red-zone trips, a 78.7% success rate that was fourth-best in FBS in 2019. Before the College Football Playoff semifinal, they were successful on 93% of their attempts.

Part of that was due to quarterback Justin Fields, who was a gifted runner and provided an additional scoring threat in tighter spaces close to the goal line. But they also leaned on K.J. Hill, a senior receiver who lined up in the slot.

Hill was targeted more than any other Buckeyes receiver in the red zone, according to data reviewed by CFB Film Review. Seven of his 10 touchdown receptions were on plays that originated in the red zone, a fourth of the team’s red-zone passing scores.

Can a similarly dependable threat emerge in 2020?

Chris Olave, who was largely Fields’ go-to receiver, and Garrett Wilson, who shined as a freshman, were featured as outside receivers. There aren’t many questions about their big-play potential along the sideline.

Part of the uncertainty in the slot is due to C.J. Saunders, who is waiting for the NCAA to rule on his petition for a sixth season of eligibility after a knee injury last season.

There might not be the perfect stand-in for Hill, who finished as Ohio State’s career receptions leader and was particularly surehanded. Among the Buckeyes’ top-five pass catchers last season, no one snagged a higher percentage thrown their way than Hill, who hauled in 76% of his targets, according to Pro Football Focus.

The Buckeyes could see a few different slot receivers emerge.

Jaelen Gill, who will be a redshirt sophomore, was the backup to Hill and turned heads when he caught his first touchdown late in a blowout at Rutgers. Gill turned a catch in the slot into a 32-yard touchdown play when he cut through two defenders, spun past another and broke a tackle on his way into the end zone.

Still, he saw limited playing time. The touchdown catch was one of six receptions all season, and he was on the field for only 63 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus' tally.

Receivers coach Brian Hartline has mentioned freshman Mookie Cooper as a slot receiver, and the early-enrollees have the flexibility to move there as needed, he said. Jaxon Smith-Njigba said this month that he was also learning the slot receiver spot as he prepares for his spring at Ohio State.

To continue to find red-zone production, the Buckeyes could target their tight ends more often, particularly Jeremy Ruckert, who made a critical one-handed catch for a 16-yard touchdown play in the second half of Ohio State’s comeback against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.

Ruckert had 14 catches last season, the most among the tight ends, and remains a big target at 6 feet 5.


Listen to the BuckeyeXtra Football podcast: