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Chris Olave is driven to succeed for his family and to erase sting of last year's ending

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

High school coaches have given Ryan Day the pitch plenty of times. It’s usually it’s a bad sign.

The Ohio State football coach was the new Buckeyes offensive co-coordinator in 2017 when he flew to California to see blue-chip quarterback prospect Jack Tuttle at Mission Hills High School.

The Mission Hills coach, Chris Hauser, called another player out of class to catch some passes from Tuttle. The other player hadn’t even played the prior season after being ruled ineligible following a transfer. But Hauser had seen enough of Chris Olave on the scout team to mention him to Day.

“Yes, that happens a lot, for sure,” Day said. “And usually, if the coach is saying, ‘I’ve got another guy for you over here,’ that means you’re not getting the (preferred) guy. So it’s usually not a good feeling. But in this case, it was kind of the perfect storm.”

Receiver Chris Olave, shown here after making a catch against Nebraska in Ohio State's 2020 season opener, has developed from a little-known high school prospect into an all-conference-caliber player.

Day didn’t end up signing Tuttle, who enrolled at Utah before transferring to Indiana. Tuttle is now the backup quarterback for the Hoosiers, who play the Buckeyes on Saturday for first place in the Big Ten East.

Meanwhile, Olave has blossomed into one of the country’s top receivers, gifted with talent and now a resolve to erase the bitterness from last season’s unfortunate ending.

Olave's unexpected showcase 

Olave had no reason to think his life was about to change when he got the text from Hauser to come to his office to meet Day.

“I was just helping my quarterback,” Olave said. “Coach Day was just there to see him throw and see his form. I never thought he was looking at me.”

Olave didn’t even run routes that day. He just casually caught passes for about 10 minutes. Hauser and Day were meeting for the first time, and Hauser knew he was going out on a limb by talking up Olave.

“I was saying, ‘Coach Day, that kid he’s playing catch with is special. I know I can’t prove it yet to you based on tape from last year, but I’m telling you that’s a special young man,’ ” Hauser said.

Chris Olave (2) has developed into one of quarterback Justin Fields' most reliable targets, accounting for 16 receptions for 288 yards and a team-high four touchdowns, including one against Rutgers on Nov. 7.

“I don’t know what he was thinking. He could have been thinking, ‘this Hauser guy is bananas,’ or ‘here’s one of those guys again, trying to sell me on somebody else.’ Because that happens. Most high school guys coaches are going to advocate for their kids. I rolled the dice, but I believed in Chris and in my heart I knew he could play at that level and be very, very successful.”

That Olave was at Mission Hills at all was hardly the plan. He’s the youngest of Raul and Causha Olave’s three sons. While Isiah played at UC Davis, Josh and Chris were at Eastlake High School in suburban San Diego.

The Olave parents had high academic standards for their sons. The boys weren’t even allowed to play video games during the week.

But Josh and Chris were not living up to that standard, despite repeated warnings. So Raul and Causha decided to move north of San Diego and enroll the boys at Mission Hills, leaving a six-bedroom house for a three-bedroom apartment.

Chris Olave before the 2019 season

The fresh start quickly ran into a roadblock. The California Interscholastic Federation ruled Josh and Chris Olave ineligible for football in 2016 because it deemed the transfer was motivated by athletics more than academics. The Olaves and Hauser were furious.

“This school knew how strict we were on our kids as far as education,” Causha said.

So Josh and Chris did in practices what they couldn’t do in games.

“We had the two best scout players in the country that year,” Hauser said.

Josh would accept an offer from Azusa Pacific. Ohio State’s interest in Olave grew the more they researched him and especially after he and Tuttle became an unstoppable combination in 2017. He caught 93 passes and scored 26 touchdowns.

Olave impressed Hauser as much off the field.

“He checks off all the boxes when you start thinking about superlatives for a young man in high school,” he said. “Just super kind, super respectful, easy to coach, a great teammate. He knew he was super talented yet didn’t carry him himself that way.”

Because he missed his junior year, Olave was a sleeper to most of the outside world. He wasn’t inside Ohio State’s program.

Chris Olave made his first major impact on the Ohio State football program in the 2018 Michigan game, when the freshman had two touchdown receptions and blocked a Wolverines punt that the Buckeyes returned for a score.

“Chris just jumped off the film,” said Brian Hartline, then a quality-control coach before becoming the Buckeyes’ wide receivers coach in 2018.

Olave was a big Oregon fan — he was crushed when the Buckeyes beat the Ducks for the 2014 College Football Playoff championship — but Pac-12 schools were slow to offer him a scholarship. When Ohio State did first, he was on his way to becoming a Buckeye.

Olave was the third-lowest ranked recruit in Ohio State’s 2018, but turned heads quickly with his silky moves and sure hands. He’s quiet by nature, and he became a sponge soaking in the knowledge passed down from Terry McLaurin and other veteran receivers. Olave made his first big splash that year against Michigan when he caught two touchdown passes and blocked a punt that was returned for a score.

That was the first Buckeyes game his parents attended. It happened to be Causha’s birthday.

“That’s one experience that everybody would want to put on their bucket list because that is the most amazing experience ever,” she said.

Olave's breakout season 

Olave proved throughout the 2019 season that the Michigan game was no fluke. He became one of Justin Fields’ favorite targets while leading the Buckeyes with 849 receiving yards and 12 touchdown catches.

Chris Olave, here reaching over Penn State cornerback John Reid for a touchdown, led Buckeyes receivers with 844 yards and 12 TD catches in 2019.

But a glorious season ended … well, you know what happened. The miscommunication with Fields on the decisive interception against Clemson in the CFP semifinal ended the Buckeyes’ chance for a national title.

Olave patiently answered questions after the game, blaming himself, and the pain didn’t subside. He barely ate solid food for days, Day said.

When the pandemic hit and Olave returned to California, he trained like a fiend, often with Tuttle.

“He got to the point to where he was working out, I want to say, six to seven hours a day,” Causha said.

Chris Olave took Ohio State's loss to Clemson in last season's College Football Playoff semifinal particularly hard.

When the Big Ten originally announced it would cancel the fall season, Olave said he never considered the idea of opting out of the season to prepare for the NFL draft. There was no way, he said, he would allow the Clemson game to be his last as a Buckeye. This year, he has been as productive as expected with 18 catches for 288 yards and four touchdowns.

“Chris is the kind of guy who helps me look forward to going into the building every day,” Hartline said. “There’s a lot of those guys. Frankly, the whole room is like that. But Chris just stands out.”

Olave said the source of motivation is simple — his family.

Chris Olave (2) hauls in a 33-yard touchdown pass against Rutgers on Nov. 7.

“That’s my purpose,” he said. “That’s why I go so hard. Both my brothers, we’re so close. I can’t even explain the love I have for them. I can’t even explain into words the love I have for my parents, what they did for me throughout my whole life and how they continue to support me.”

His family helped ease the pain from last season’s bitter ending. Still, it is something Olave can’t totally forget.

“I’m over it, but it’s still in the back of my mind,” he said. “It just makes me hungry. Puts a chip on my shoulder. I’m just trying to dominate throughout the season.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

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