Perhaps no single position group at Ohio State has more talent in the room than that of the receivers.
Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson give receivers coach Brian Hartline a pair of elite playmakers to lean on as the program losses a trio of multi-year contributors in Austin Mack, Binjimen Victor, and the program’s all-time receptions leader in K.J. Hill.
Hartline and the Buckeyes reloaded the position in a major way with the addition of four of the country’s best receiver recruits in the 2020 class in Julian Flemming, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Gee Scott Jr., and Mookie Cooper. Each brought with them plenty of intrigue as to how they might factor into national title hopes this fall.
But the freshmen group had just three practices this spring to get on the field and begin making their bids for playing time this fall, and now they must rely largely on themselves to ensure they continue development as they await word on when practice will resume.
While Hartline laments not being able to coach his players up in person, he is confident the freshmen will continue to work hard because those are the people he recruited to begin with.
“We’re definitely missing out,” Hartline said during a teleconference on Wednesday. “But they have been recruited because of the way they carry themselves and the accountability with which they operate.”
Specifically, Hartline said the inability to have the receivers on the field, making the inevitable mistakes that come with being young, and learning from them is where the lack of spring practice hurts.
“During the spring, it’s more about being able to take meetings to the field,” Hartline said. “The mental aspect of the game, being able to make mistakes and how fast we are able to correct them. At the end of the day, everyone is going to make mistakes, but it’s about how fast you can fix them.”
Hartline added that he was really hoping to see the receivers room begin to build chemistry and a new identity during the spring, with new leaders beginning to emerge.
“Those are the kinds of things we miss,” he said. “The football side of things, I feel like we’ll be ok. We have a lot of smart guys in that room, a lot of guys who care. But the culture, and the brotherhood, and the molding of the room are things I think have seen the biggest losses.”
As for his early on-field impressions of the freshmen in the limited time he had to see them on the field, Hartline said he came away encouraged.
“I think they did a really good job,” he said. “I think the biggest impression is how competitive they are, how much they care, how much it matters to them. Those are things that jumped out. They have an uncanny ability to make plays, and they want to help their teammates, and they are very coachable and positive … They’re everything we thought these young men were.”
While the freshmen are sure to continue generating significant buzz when practice resumes, the known commodities in Olave and Wilson are sure to ease Hartline’s concerns about how quickly his newest group can develop. For Wilson, however, a role change has added to his own development process as he enters just his second season at Ohio State.
One of the bigger developments that came out of the brief run of spring practices was the repositioning of Wilson inside to the slot receiver position vacated with Hill’s graduation. Ryan Day said of the move following the first day of spring practice, “I think when you look at his background, his basketball background, his spatial awareness is off the charts. His range is really good. He can operate in short areas. And the other thing for him is he can time up (the ball) down the field … He’s got a unique skill set.”
Day added in March, “But I think his ability to catch the ball, put it away, and run after the catch so quickly is something you want out of a slot receiver. And running option routes, setting up defenders and understanding space and everything like that, it happens a lot faster in there. But I think his skill set fits that.”
Wilson broke out last season as a true freshman, catching five touchdown passes and flashing the star potential that made him a five-star recruit in the 2019 recruiting class. The move, while surprising to some, had been on the mind of Hartline for some time.
“Frankly, I was already having visions of that last year,” Hartline said of Wilson playing out of the slot. “Coach (Ryan) Day puts big trust in me, so he just kind of asked me, ‘Hey, what do you think? What do you want to do? Have a thought and we’ll come back and talk about it.’ As a coaching staff, we’ve made decisions based on putting guys in positions to be most successful. All of those conversations happen and then you see where it goes.”
Hartline said spring practice would have been an ideal time “to see the complexity of that and how it would work out” with Wilson. While Hartline said everything can change, he said the expectation is for Wilson to remain in the slot and excel in the position.
“I think he’ll do a really good job in there,” Hartline said. “We’ll see how it progresses over time.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.