Upholding the recruiting standard set by Urban Meyer was no small task for Ryan Day as he went about filling his first full class as the leader of the Ohio State football program.
The results were a resounding success as Day was able to sign a 24-man class that ranked as the fifth best in the 2020 cycle, led by a remarkable haul of four receivers that all rank inside the top 16 at the position according to 247 Sports. In Julian Fleming, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Gee Scott Jr. and Mookie Cooper, Ohio State will have an embarrassment of talent, as well as versatility to integrate into a receivers room that already features proven playmakers.
The return of Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson give Day and receivers coach Brian Hartline a pair of experienced and elite targets on the outside. But the departures of Binjimen Victor, Austin Mack and K.J. Hill have thinned what was a deep rotation last year, which leaves plenty of room for the newcomers to vie for early playing time alongside guys like sophomore Jameson Williams and redshirt sophomore Kamryn Babb, who finally appears to be healthy after missing both of his first two seasons in Columbus.
But before they can produce on the field for the Buckeyes in the fall, each player first has to adjust to life at a program like Ohio State. Asked how much more difficult the Ohio State offseason program is than anything he was accustomed to in high school, Cooper said, “About 20 times harder.”
Fleming, the No. 1-ranked receiver in the 2020 class, said of his first month in the program, “It’s been challenging, definitely different than high school. It’s really competitive but it’s a great time.”
With spring practice set to begin in less than two weeks, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the early enrollees as mat drills will give way to doing what brought them to Ohio State —making plays on the field. It is there where the coaching staff will get its first real look at what it might have in the freshmen, and for Cooper, he can be expected to showcase one particular asset from the moment he steps on the field.
“Speed,” Cooper said when asked what can be expected of him. He later added, “I make plays happen.”
What he lacks in size at just 5-foot-9-inches tall, Cooper more than makes up for with his shiftiness and overall athleticism. With Hill gone and no clear replacement waiting in the wings to man the slot, Cooper will have a chance to assert himself right away and give the Buckeyes a dynamic weapon in the same vein of Curtis Samuel and Parris Campbell.
However, he isn’t taking anything for granted, understanding he is going to have to start earning his keep immediately while being surrounded by so much other talent competing for the same playing time.
“It’s all a mental thing, you just have to come in and work,” Cooper said. “Because at this level, everybody is replaceable. You just have to bust your tail and be prepared for whatever comes at you.”
Scott, Fleming and Smith-Njigba each carry more of the traditional wideout frame, all measuring at least 6-foot-1-inch tall.
Smith-Njigba made a name for himself last fall, becoming an internet sensation and frequent visitor on top-play highlights thanks to his spectacular catches. A four-star recruit for most of the cycle, Smith-Njigba finally received his proper respect last month when he was upgraded to a five-star player in the final player rankings.
While his catch radius is well known by now, Smith-Njigba believes he is more than a circus catch waiting to happen, with plenty of development still to come under the tutelage of an outstanding position coach.
“I feel like I’m a great route runner, which is definitely going to improve with Coach Hartline here,” Smith-Njigba said. “I have great hands, great focus, great hand-eye coordination. But, of course, I can always be better and I’m excited (to grow).”
Fleming comes to Columbus with perhaps the most hype as the third highest-ranked player in the 2020 class and the highest in the Ohio State class.
Probably the most polished receiver at this point in their development, Fleming is a prime candidate to see a similar amount of snaps as Wilson did last season as a true freshman. But before he’s taken part in a single practice, Fleming is only concerning himself with helping the team in any way possible.
“Within myself, I have a lot of expectations. I’m sure (the other receivers) do as well,” Fleming said. “But at this point, it’s just about contributing in any way I can on the field.”
Scott, who is the biggest and most physical of the bunch, echoes Fleming’s sentiment of wanting to make an impact in any way possible.
“Someone that’s going to work hard,” Scott said of what the program can expect from him. “I’m going to give you what I have. My goal coming into this season is, regardless of whether it’s 100 catches or zero catches, to contribute to the team. So, regardless of what I can do to help the team win, no matter what I can do, that’s what I’m going to bring to the table.”
In today’s world of recruiting, it is rare to lure so much top-notch talent and potential competition at one position in the same class. Day and Hartline have done just that, and the results could be something special in the coming years as the four receivers come into their own in their college careers. The expectations for themselves will demand nothing less, nor will those of the program for which they’ll play.
“That’s one of the first things we always talk about, even before coming here,” Smith-Njigba said of the want to be great. “We always told each other we want to be the best to ever come through (Ohio State) as a unit. So, we push each other … We’re all just trying to be great and this is the best program to be at to do that.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.