Four Ohio State football players opt out of Rose Bowl game against Utah. Who won't play?

Joey Kaufman
The Columbus Dispatch
Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Garrett Wilson (5) warms up prior to the NCAA football game against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.

ANAHEIM, Calif. —  The week of festivities ahead of the Rose Bowl began with player opt-outs for Ohio State.

It was early afternoon on Monday when junior wide receiver Garrett Wilson announced on social media that he would sit out the bowl game and enter the upcoming NFL draft.

Speaking with reporters about an hour later during a welcome event at Disneyland, coach Ryan Day said the Buckeyes would be without three others in addition to Wilson on Saturday against Utah, including fellow star receiver Chris Olave, as well as left tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere and defensive tackle Haskell Garrett.

Petit-Frere, a junior in eligibility, confirmed later he was also declaring for the draft. 

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“Certainly love the guys and appreciate everything they’ve done for the program,” Day said, “but guys have had a good month of practice, and we’re going to move forward with the guys that we have.”

In the era of the College Football Playoff, opt-outs have become increasingly common with high-profile draft-eligible players skipping out on participating in bowl games to avoid potential injury and begin preparation for their professional careers.

But bowl games with the stature of the Rose Bowl, the longest-running bowl in college football and for decades referred to as the “Granddaddy of Them All,” have been more immune to the trend.

When the Buckeyes were last in the prestigious New Year’s Day game three years ago, none of their players opted against playing Washington and ultimately left Pasadena with a 28-23 win in former coach Urban Meyer’s last game on the sideline for Ohio State.  

Despite missing four of their best players, Day didn’t seem to think it would affect the rest of the team’s focus for the game. Since Utah is appearing in its first-ever Rose Bowl, the potential gap in motivation between the sidelines has been an ongoing storyline throughout this month.

“I certainly think this game is important for our team,” Day said, “and I know the guys who are playing in their last game want to finish with a lasting image of a victory in the Rose Bowl, playing well, and the younger guys want an opportunity to get some momentum going into next year. That’s kind of what we’ve been focused on right now.” 

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The absences of Olave and Wilson will cause the biggest disruption to Ohio State’s depth chart and elevate sophomore Julian Fleming and freshmen Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr. into larger roles.

Among the trio of underclassmen, Fleming is the most experienced, having started in the Big Ten championship game last season when Olave was sidelined after testing positive for COVID-19 and at Nebraska on Nov. 6 when Wilson was in concussion protocol.

A former five-star recruit from Pennsylvania, Fleming has 14 career receptions for 125 yards and a touchdown.

“It’s a great opportunity for these young guys to come out here and ball out and show what we have,” said Jaxon Smith-Njigba, also a sophomore who has started at slot receiver. “We have a lot of confidence in those guys. It’ll look different, but it’s the next-guy up. That’s what we preach.”

Smith-Njigba, who has caught a team-high 80 passes for 1,259 yards and six touchdowns, is likely to be relied on even more in the passing game.

When asked if that might draw more attention from Utah’s defense as a result, Smith-Njigba said he wasn’t sure.

“We’re going to have to wait and see,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t know what to expect. It’s a new transition. But we’ll be ready for whatever happens.” 

Olave’s opt-out on Monday came as a minor surprise. Though he’s seen as a potential first-round draft pick much like Wilson, the senior is from San Diego, and he had been practicing ahead of the Rose Bowl, including traveling with the team to Southern California.

As recently as Monday morning, the team’s social media accounts had shared images of him at practice in Carson.

“He still wanted to be a part of the team and everything like that,” Day said.

Between Olave, Smith-Njigba and Wilson, the receiving trio had caught a combined 215 passes this season, more than two-thirds of redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud’s completions.

In other reconfigures to the Buckeyes’ depth chart on offense, right tackle Dawand Jones mentioned the likelihood that Thayer Munford would move from left guard to left tackle, replacing Petit-Frere, while Matt Jones would step in at left guard.

Munford has experience at left tackle, having starting there for three seasons prior to moving into the interior this season.

Due to injuries throughout the season, the Buckeyes have been prompted to reshuffle the grouping of their offensive line, situations that Dawand Jones felt had prepared them to move forward with the blind-side protection for Stroud.

“Our chemistry is off the charts,” Dawand Jones said.

To replace Garrett on the interior of the defensive line, tackles Jerron Cage, Antwuan Jackson and Taron Vincent are all possibilities, having started at various points this season.

Garrett has been dealing with an ankle or leg injury for much of the season.

Joey Kaufman covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at jkaufman@dispatch.com or on Twitter @joeyrkaufman.