Behind Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, Ohio State's young receivers ready to emerge in 2021

Bill Rabinowitz
The Columbus Dispatch

Buckeye Camp Questions

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories looking at the 10 most pressing questions facing Ohio State football as it prepares for the 2021 season.

Today, Part 3: Who complements Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson at wide receiver?

It is not a stretch to say that Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson are the top receiving duo in college football.

Both are projected as NFL first-round draft picks. A year ago, Olave caught 50 passes for 729 yards and seven touchdowns in seven games. Wilson had 43 catches for 723 yards and six touchdowns in eight games.

Olave has explosive speed and is a superb technician as a route-runner. Wilson has freakish body control and hands, and he is elusive after the catch.

Olave and Wilson combined for 59% of Justin Fields’ completions last year. The quarterback's next-favorite target was gifted tight end Jeremy Ruckert with 13 catches.

Jaxon Smith-Njigba caught 10 passes for 49 yards and a touchdown last season.

When Olave missed the Big Ten title game in adherence to the league's COVID protocols on testing and contact tracing, Ohio State’s passing game faltered badly. It took Trey Sermon’s record-breaking 331 rushing yards to bail out the Buckeyes against Northwestern.

Whoever quarterbacks the Buckeyes this year will be blessed to have Olave and Wilson as targets. It would help immensely if other wide receivers can share the load.

The Buckeyes believe strongly it's just a matter of time before younger receivers emerge as stars, so the issue of what other receivers emerge is a question, but not really a concern. 

The greatest evidence of that might have come shortly after spring practice ended when Jameson Williams, who started six games at receiver last year, entered the transfer portal. He elected to go to a program at which he figured to get more playing time – that little up-and-coming team called Alabama.

Julian Fleming was the nation's No. 1-ranked high school receiver in 2020.

Williams’ decision wasn’t that surprising based on the promise shown by Ohio State’s freshmen and sophomore receivers. Position coach Brian Hartline has recruited at an ultra-high level since taking over in 2018.

Wilson was the No. 2 receiver in the’s composite rankings in 2019. Julian Fleming was No. 1 and Jaxon Smith-Njigba No. 5 in 2020.

In 2021, Emeka Egbuka was the top-ranked receiver, with Marvin Harrison Jr. at No. 14 and Jayden Ballard at No. 15.

Blue-chip recruiting status doesn’t guarantee results, of course, but the Buckeyes are brimming with confidence about their younger receivers.

The receiver perhaps most likely to emerge as the next star is Smith-Njigba, who broke Texas records during his high school career. He will move to the slot this year as Wilson moves outside, and Smith-Njigba figures to pose the same matchup headaches to nickel cornerbacks and linebackers that Wilson did.

Smith-Njigba, like Wilson, has superb body control and a knack for acrobatic catches.

“I can’t wait for him to put on a show,” Olave said.

Other than last year, Ohio State has relied on a deep receiving rotation since Hartline's arrival. That has enabled receivers to stay fresh. The Buckeyes believe they’ll have that this year.

Fleming battled an injury during the spring but is expected to be ready. The combination of size, strength and speed that made him such a coveted prospect hasn’t gone away.

At 6 feet 3, Marvin Harrison Jr. has the frame to be useful in red-zone situations.

Harrison and Egbuka showed in the spring game — each had seven catches — that the praise they’d earned in March and April wasn’t idle hype.

The 6-foot-3 Harrison has the frame to be particularly useful in red-zone situations. Egbuka showed excellent hands and plenty of polish.

“We have so many talented guys,” Olave said. “All work hard and keep their heads down. Whenever the opportunity comes, they're going to do the same thing as (Wilson and me).”

Olave is the leader of the unit. He’s reserved by nature, but Hartline believes his presence, as well as Wilson’s, will pay off for the younger receivers.

“I remember reading a good quote: You hang out with five idiots, and you're the sixth. You hang out with five millionaires, and you're the sixth,” Hartline said. “That's just what it is. Having Chris back again, it keeps him around Emeka and Marvin and Jayden Ballard. That's paramount. To be around Garrett for Jaxon and Julian, I think it's just so important — to have this kind of connection in the room, and then have their work ethic and watch these guys progress the way they have.”


Next: Who will play on the interior of the offensive line?

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