Garrett Wilson didn’t disappoint during his freshman campaign.
The former five-star recruit and number one-ranked receiver in the 2019 recruiting class lived up to the hype despite seeing limited snaps in a full rotation last season, showing a knack for making big plays in the vertical passing game.
As a true freshman, Wilson hauled in 30 passes for 432 yards and five touchdowns, good for fourth on the team in each statistic.
But with K.J. Hill having moved on after setting the school record for career receptions, vacating the slot receiver position he so masterfully executed over the past three seasons, Wilson’s role is set to change as Ohio State prepares for its season opener on Oct. 24 against Nebraska.
Wilson opened up spring practice for the Buckeyes in the slot, a surprise to many who assumed he would slide in on the outside, opposite Chris Olave. The move was first considered by receivers coach Brian Hartline last season with an eye towards Hill’s departure, and spring practice was to be the first opportunity for Hartline to see it on the field.
Spring practice was cut short, however, as the Buckeyes practiced just once before the pandemic forced the shut down of team activities. Despite the lack of practice time and relatively non-existent experience for Wilson at the position, Hartline is still comfortable with Wilson manning the slot with under a month to go before the Cornhuskers come to town.
“I think when you have limited time, it probably did have an effect,” receivers coach Brian Hartline said of the lack of practice time for Wilson. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job — he’s done a very good job of not allowing (the inexperience) to show up too often.”
Hartline said Wilson’s experience last season on the outside, coupled with time in the slot this season, will give him the all-important versatility to play either position. He added there are “more nuances” to playing inside, but Wilson has handled it well thus far.
“Having a guy that is very dynamic on the inside is very important,” Hartline said. “A guy that’s really smart though. His ability to identify space and work around linebackers … I think a guy on the inside, maybe more than any other position, has to do more things.”
In just one season, Wilson has shown the talent to be the complete package as a do-everything receiver. His ability to elevate and grab contested throws was well-documented heading into last season, and it was validated at several points throughout the Buckeyes’ run to a Big Ten title and a playoff spot.
But perhaps somewhat surprisingly was his ability to run after the catch last season as he showed good speed and “wiggle,” as Hartline called it, both after the catch and as a punt returner. Hartline said the decisions an athlete like Wilson will force upon defensive coaches, who will need to decide whether to match up a slower linebacker or a less physical nickel corner on him, provides an advantage to the Buckeye offense. Just how much of an advantage will come down to execution, Hartline said, adding, “Time will tell.”
Should Wilson settle into the role, he can expect to see a lot of looks from quarterback Justin Fields, who leaned considerably on Hill in the slot last season. In fact, slot receivers have led the Buckeyes in catches every year since Ryan Day has been at Ohio State, both as a coordinator and a head coach.
Wilson said the move to the slot wasn’t something he had his eye on originally, although he is excited to play inside as he continues to get more comfortable at the position.
“It wasn’t something I was looking forward to, coach (Hartline) just wanted me to do whatever was best for the team, and I was able to do that,” Wilson said. “It’s just a whole different position with all of the intricacies of playing in the slot, but I feel like I’m getting more used to it every day. I’m just worried about getting better every day, understanding coverages and stuff like that. I’m definitely excited to be in the slot.”
His ability to watch and learn from Hill last season will only help in his transition, Wilson said.
“He’s as good of a slot (receiver) as it gets,” Wilson said of Hill, adding that his favorite receiver to watch is Green Bay Packer Davante Adams because he can line up anywhere.
Wherever Wilson lines up this season, he has the utmost confidence from his teammates. As fellow receiver Jameson Williams put it, “I think Garrett should be a dangerous receiver anywhere, inside or outside. His game can work inside or outside. His route running is dangerous.”