Strip away every reception by non-wide receivers on Ohio State’s 2018 offense and the Buckeyes still break the team passing record by 612 yards in 2018.
Then redshirt-sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins completed 70 percent of his throws and earned a trip to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist, but he enjoyed tremendous contributions from his receiving corps. Three of the top four players at the position, in terms of yardage, are gone — two selected before round four of the 2019 NFL draft.
Now, sophomore quarterback Justin Fields rolls in from Georgia with a mixed bag of veterans and unproven high-end talent trying to adjust to a new quarterback who’s learning the offense.
“I had three great leaders in the receiver room. I followed them,” redshirt senior receiver K.J. Hill said. “Now I want to fill those shoes and have the young guys look up to me like I looked up to them, so we can keep the standard in the receiving room and raise the bar. ”
Hill was selected by coach Ryan Day to represent the program at Big Ten Media Day, a returning senior who stands 48 catches from eclipsing David Boston’s school career receptions record.
Joining him are seniors Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor, each possessing more than 20 games’ experience at the position while in Columbus. They started as part of a six-man receiving rotation in 2018.
When it comes to upperclassmen, however, those are the only three wideouts to have started a game at Ohio State — and Day still plans to go at least six deep.
“When you look at who we have coming back, I think we have a chance for that same thing,” Day said. “Not as much experience, but when you look at Austin and Ben, they’ve played there before, K.J. has got a ton of experience, and then Chris Olave came on at the end of the season. So we want to get to that six, seven-man rotation if we can.”
That’s why Hill, Mack and Victor have placed an emphasis on bringing the younger players up to speed as fast as possible, to keep a fresh, productive receiving corps that grinds defenses down into the fourth quarter. It aligns with a vision Day stated earlier in the press conference.
“We’ve been grabbing the young receivers to come out, workout, show them the ropes really,” Hill said.
After being asked what young players stood out to him, Hill beamed and started rattling off names. Redshirt sophomores Jaylen Harris and Elijah Gardiner combine for four catches in two years each in Columbus.
Hill forecasts a change in that trend.
“[They’re both] turning from a boy to a man,” he said. “I can see it in their eyes, they’re thinking different.”
Many are anxious to see if sophomore receiver Chris Olave can replicate the success he found after replacing an injured Mack at the end of 2018.
Playing as a true freshman, Olave dismantled the nation’s No. 1 pass defense in Michigan for two 24-yard touchdown grabs, each showcasing a unique trait within his abilities. The first score came on a short crossing route where he simply outran the defense playing man coverage behind, the second on a deep ball that he tracked through the air around a defender.
In one final showcase of speed, he blocked a third quarter punt that resulted in another touchdown.
“We already knew he could do that, because we seen it every day in practice, he just got his opportunity and made the most of it,” Hill said. “I expect a big season from Chris, we’re gonna need him. Chris been out there also, with us, throwing and catching, and putting in the extra work.”
One new addition to the team that could impact the receiver rotation is freshman Garrett Wilson, a five-star recruit who high-pointed an 18-yard scoring grab in the 2019 Spring Game.
“Great ball skills, route-running, understanding the game,” Hill said of Wilson. “I feel like in the spring, he got better, because he learned the college pace of the game and learned the plays.”
Speaking of new additions, all receivers are trying to gain a familiarity with Fields and probable backup redshirt junior quarterback Gunner Hoak, another new transfer from Kentucky. They throw together nearly every day, according to Hill.
“We might have a group message and be like, ‘This is what time we’re throwing,’ or we throw right after our workout,” Hill said. “It’s really up to us, right now, to get the chemistry going.”
One thing that isn’t new for the Ohio State receiving corps is position coach Brian Hartline. Hartline enters his second year in the role for the Buckeyes, with the “interim” tag dropped from his title.
Given the results of 2018’s group and multiple top 100 prospects landed on the recruiting trail, it’s easy to see why Day wants to keep him around.
“It’s crazy that you play for him, because he did what you want to do. He went where you want to go,” Hill said, referring to the NFL. “Any question you’ve got, he’s got an answer for it, because he already did it. Why wouldn’t you want to listen to a guy like that?”
Listening to Hill and looking at the potential in the roster, it appears the skill is in place for Ohio State’s receivers to enjoy success during the 2019 campaign. What matters now is selflessness, according to Day, when trying to rotate as many players as the team plans to do. It’s why he thinks the room put up the numbers they did in 2018.
“That talks to that room and what Brian Hartline has done in terms of building unselfishness in that room,” Day said. “There’s a lot of receivers that want the ball. They want their catches. They want their numbers. But these guys didn’t care, and we have to keep that mentality going in that room.”
The approach the receivers take to blocking speaks to that selflessness. As Hill said, the unit wants to be different.
“Anybody can find a receiver that can catch the ball. Anybody can find a receiver that can run a route,” Hill said. “It’s the little things. Every receiver don’t want to block, and the way that we block, we take that mentality of being different. Because if you’re different, you can’t be replaced.”