Chris Olave’s surprising return creates a good problem for Ohio State
I’ll admit, the thought of Chris Olave returning to Ohio State for his senior season never crossed my mind.
After all, Olave had likely propelled himself into the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft after averaging 78.5 receiving yards per game over the last 2 seasons, to go along with 19 TD catches. His quarterback, Justin Fields, is going pro, and next year’s starting QB won’t have thrown a college pass. Plus, he got redemption against Clemson. What better time for this former 3-star recruit to cash in and fulfill a dream?
And yet, Olave announced on Monday that he is coming back to Columbus, to the delight of Buckeyes fans and the dismay of, well, the rest of the Big Ten (and maybe a few teammates?). Combined with the returns of left tackle Thayer Munford, tight end Jeremy Ruckert and defensive end Tyreke Smith, the Buckeyes are set up wonderfully for 2021 despite losing early draft entrants Fields, cornerback Shaun Wade, right guard Wyatt Davis, center Josh Myers and defensive tackle Tommy Togiai.
Olave’s return means a few things.
For one, Ohio State’s wide receiver group is going to be absolutely stacked (again). All 3 starters from last season — Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jameson Williams — are back. In fact, every wideout who played a snap in 2020 can return, including a 2020 recruiting class with 3 of the top 10 wideouts in the country. When you add into the mix 3 of the top 15 wideouts in the 2021 recruiting class, well, that’s an embarrassment of riches at one position. In a sport that tilts more and more to the offensive side of the ball each year, the Buckeyes will have no shortage of options.
But that obviously creates some roster congestion, which is a good problem to have — unless you’re one of those young guys who anticipated a starting spot opening up in 2021. It’s going to be fascinating to see how Ohio State manages this situation. Olave’s departure would’ve created opportunities for that ridiculous 2020 class to break out, but now some of those guys will have to either wait another year … or transfer (as Mookie Cooper, the No. 16 WR recruit in 2020, already has, joining Missouri).
Just from the 2020 and 2021 classes, look at the ridiculous amount of talent that could be on the 2021 roster: Julian Fleming (No. 1 WR in 2020), Jaxon Smith-Njigba (No. 5 in 2020), Gee Scott Jr. (No. 10 in 2020), Emeka Egbuka (No. 1 in 2021), Jayden Ballard (No. 8 in 2021) and Marvin Harrison Jr. (No. 15 in 2021). That’s a lot of competition, and it doesn’t even include last year’s starters.
Winning is the most important thing, but taking care of your guys and helping them reach the NFL is next on the list, because that’s how you ensure top recruits keep coming to your program. That’s why this will be such a balancing act.
Guys with a recruiting pedigree like Fleming, Smith-Njigba and Egbukba don’t go somewhere expecting to take a back seat for multiple seasons, but that could be a reality. Perhaps they will pass up Williams on the depth chart, but at best, they are looking at being Ohio State’s No. 3 wide receiver in 2021. And they have to be hoping that the next Ohio State QB spreads the ball around more than Fields. Olave and Wilson combined for 93 of Fields’ 158 completions, and it likely would’ve been even higher if Olave didn’t miss the Big Ten Championship Game due to COVID. Ruckert was Ohio State’s No. 3 target with just 13 receptions.
When you go to Ohio State, you know you have to compete with other elite recruits, but this is even more of a log jam than originally anticipated.
In addition, some have speculated that Olave’s return for his senior season means that he is confident in Ohio State’s QB options. Conventional thinking would be that Olave is taking a risk coming back because C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller and Kyle McCord won’t be as good as Fields, nor will they have as good of chemistry that Olave had with Fields. So, what does Olave know about Ohio State’s trio of untested QBs that we don’t?
Chris Olave coming back is huge because he’s a great player. It’s also just as big because he’s signaling that whoever plays QB is about to be legit. He doesn’t come back if he doesn’t believe that.
— Joshua E Perry (@RIP_JEP) January 18, 2021
I agree, theoretically, that Olave must feel good about Ohio State’s QBs. He’s seen them throw in practice, so he must think there is the potential for him to have another huge season and up his draft stock even more.
A word of caution, though. This is the same logic I applied to the situation at Michigan with Joe Milton and Dylan McCaffrey, the latter of whom entered the transfer portal before the season. Their QB battle occurred behind closed doors thanks to the pandemic, and when McCaffrey abruptly left, it seemed to signal that Milton had convincingly won the job. But it only took a few games to realize that wasn’t the case at all and that Milton is still a work in progress. So, let’s see how it plays out.
It’s increasingly rare for established players to pass up a chance for a life-changing paycheck and return to college, so Ohio State is extremely fortunate to have Olave, Munford, Ruckert and Smith back. Munford and Ruckert would’ve been middle-round picks, but are hoping to elevate their stock as seniors.
It’s kind of reminiscent of 2020 Alabama, no? DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle both would’ve been borderline first-round picks had they left after their junior seasons, and offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood and running back Najee Harris would’ve been among the top players at their respective positions. All of them came back and were part of the ridiculous national champion squad. Betting on themselves paid off, as each improved his draft stock — most notably Smith, who won the Heisman and is now in the conversation to go in the top 5 overall.
Olave’s situation is different than Smith, though. Olave has been Ohio State’s No. 1 receiver for the last 2 years, while Smith wanted the chance to shine on his own after sharing time with other first-round picks in Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs. That’s why Olave’s return is even more remarkable when you think about it.
With Olave in the fold for 2021, Ohio State’s wide receiver room is a bit overcrowded. It’s a good problem, but it’s still a problem nonetheless. How Ryan Day balances this dynamic and keeps this uber-talented group happy will be a fascinating storyline in 2021.