Is OSU college football's new "WRU?" What the Buckeyes' massive talent spike means for B1G, Playoff contenders
Once Ryan Day finished licking his wounds after the national championship, one would assume he looked at his group of returning wide receivers and had a realization.
Goodness, that’s an absurd amount of talent.
Day’s team boasts Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, who Pro Football Focus just ranked as the top 2 returning receivers in America. In addition to Wilson, Ohio State now has 4 former 5-star recruits in the receiver room. In all, 9 of Ohio State’s top 10 wideouts were once top-15 receivers and top-100 recruits in their respective classes. Olave, AKA PFF’s top returning receiver in America, was the lone non-blue chip recruit among those 10.
That group includes Emeka Egbuka, who signed with Ohio State as the No. 1 receiver in the 2021 class. Egbuka committed to Ohio State 5 days before the Early Signing Period began. Why did the Steilacoom, Washington, native commit to a program 2,500 miles from home?
“I think he wants to go to the most difficult situation possible,” Egbuka’s Steilacoom High School coach Colby Davies told The Athletic after his commitment. “He wants to challenge himself. I think he wants to go into the deepest receiver room he can possibly be in and he wants to be pushed every day.”
Egbuka’s pledge and subsequent signing came a couple of weeks after Ohio State got a commitment from the No. 1 receiver in the 2022 class, Caleb Burton. In a year, he’ll join what’s quickly become as deep and talented a position group as any in America.
The question is worth asking — is Ohio State suddenly “WRU” for recruits?
Before Alabama fans lose their minds, let’s stay focus on the matter at hand. We’re talking about recruiting wide receiver talent. Nobody is denying that Alabama’s production in college and in the NFL Draft is second to none. We’re talking about a program with likely 4 first-round receivers and a Heisman Trophy winner at the position in a 2-year stretch. Ohio State isn’t on that level. Sixty minutes of football in Miami told us that.
But let’s keep the focus on bringing in talent. If you just want to look at 2021, Alabama actually owns that argument, too. Here’s the breakdown of schools that signed multiple top-15 receivers in the 2021 class (all rankings based on the 247sports composite):
- Alabama, 4
- Ohio State, 3
- LSU, 3
- Oregon, 2
Again, if we’re focusing strictly on 2020-21, Alabama wins any sort of “WRU” argument. That even includes LSU, who could have 2 more receivers picked in Round 1 (Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall) after Justin Jefferson shined as a first-round rookie and the Tigers boast former 5-star Kayshon Boutte, who earned true freshman All-American honors in 2020. Boutte was actually LSU’s only top-15 receiver signee in 2019-20, meaning that despite the class of 2021 receiver surge in Baton Rouge, the total is 4 top-15 receivers in the last 3 cycles.
What might come as a bit of a surprise was the fact that Alabama actually didn’t sign a top-15 receiver in the 2019 or 2020 classes.
Who had multiple top-15 receivers in those classes? Ohio State. And Georgia. Those are the only schools that signed multiple top-15 receivers twice in the last 3 years.
Georgia, however, didn’t sign a top-15 receiver in 2021. In fact, despite Georgia’s annual recruiting dominance, Kirby Smart didn’t even sign a 4-star receiver in 2021. Who did? Ten SEC teams (including 2 at Kentucky), Georgia Tech, Cal, Northwestern, Indiana, Kansas and, hey, even Deion Sanders signed a 4-star wideout at FCS Jackson State.
Is Georgia loaded at the receiver position for 2021? Absolutely. But it’s hard to say a program is “WRU” for recruits when not a single 4-star receiver signed there in the most recent class.
Ohio State, however, signed multiple top-15 recruits in each of the last 3 classes. It’s 8, to be exact. That means of all the top-15 receivers in the last 3 recruiting cycles, 18% of them signed with the Buckeyes.
Here’s that breakdown of where top-15 receivers signed from 2019-21:
- Ohio State, 8
- Georgia, 5
- Alabama, 4
- LSU, 4
- Oklahoma, 4
- Clemson, 4
- Oregon, 3
- Texas A&M, 2
- USC, 2
- Florida, 1
- Maryland, 1
- Miami (FL), 1
- Michigan, 1
- Notre Dame, 1
- Stanford, 1
- TCU, 1
- Texas, 1
- Washington, 1
Of course, that wasn’t always the case that Ohio State was the leader in the clubhouse when it came to recruiting elite receivers. It wasn’t long ago that the receiver situation in Columbus was a bit of a head-scratcher.
From 2003-17, Ohio State didn’t have a single 1,000-yard receiver. Nebraska was the only other Big Ten program that didn’t produce a 1,000-yard receiver during that stretch. (Both of them, ironically enough, ended that drought in 2018.) Despite that bizarre trend, Ohio State had 15 receivers drafted from 2004-18, which was more than Oklahoma (13) and Alabama (6).
From 2010-18, Ohio State only signed 6 top-15 receivers. Again, that number is 8 in the last 3 recruiting classes (2019-21). This 3-year stretch dominates what happened in the 9 years before it in terms of receiver talent in Columbus. From 2010-18, Ohio State signed multiple top-15 receivers just once (2016 with Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor). Even when Ohio State signed the No. 2 class nationally in 2013 and 2017, each of those classes only featured 1 top-15 receiver (Jalin Marshall in 2013 and Trevon Grimes in 2017).
So what changed?
It’s not difficult to pinpoint the 2-part answer that question.
Go back to 2018. That’s when Ryan Day, who had just gotten a promotion to co-offensive coordinator/primary play-caller after 1 year in Columbus, took total control of the offense with Urban Meyer suspended for the first 3 games for his handling of the Zach Smith debacle (more on him in a minute). In 2018, Dwayne Haskins finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting with more passing yards and completions than anyone in Big Ten history. Parris Campbell ended Ohio State’s 15-year drought without a 1,000-yard receiver, too.
Justin Fields only threw the ball an average of 25 times per game in 2019 and then an average of 28 times in 2020, but there was an equalizer. Fields stretched the field in a way that Ohio State didn’t during the Meyer era. Hence, it became a more receiver friendly-offense (Wilson had a catch of 20 yards in every game in 2020). That’s the first part of it.
The other part of that was Brian Hartline taking over for the aforementioned Smith as Ohio State’s receivers coach. It’s not that Smith didn’t have his fair share of success in Columbus. He recruited and helped develop Mike Thomas, he went out and got guys like Terry McLaurin and he even teamed up with Day to sign Olave to the 2018 class. Regardless of the way things played out for Smith off the field, what can’t be denied is that Hartline took the high level of talent Smith recruited at the receiver position … and then took it to the moon.
Look at a guy like Julian Fleming. He was the No. 1 wide receiver recruit and No. 3 overall in the 2020 class. Fleming went to high school an hour and a half from Penn State. Even better, his girlfriend was a Penn State student. Still, who did Fleming sign with? Hartline and the Buckeyes.
A year later, Egbuka’s signing marked the second consecutive cycle in which Ohio State signed the No. 1 receiver recruit in America. He was the 6th receiver among the top 100 recruits to commit to Hartline in a 3-year stretch. Meyer called Hartline, whom he hired as a grad assistant shortly after his NFL career ended, one of the best recruiters, if not the best recruiter in America. A recent poll in The Athletic asked 5 national recruiting analysts who the best recruiting assistant was, and two said Hartline.
The signing of Marvin Harrison Jr. — another blue-chip Pennsylvania receiver — was also an example of Hartline’s recruiting success. Harrison said talking to Thomas helped, but what really sold him was the conversation he had with McLaurin. Harrison got a chance to talk to McLaurin at Ohio State’s 2019 spring game. During that brief conversation, McLaurin made a lasting impression because of what he said about the 30-something Buckeye assistant:
“If there’s anyone who’s praised Coach Hartline the most during my time there, it was Terry,” Harrison told Eleven Warriors in January. “I could already tell he was a great coach, but talking to Terry briefly he loved Coach Hartline. They still keep in contact now. He definitely had a big impact, just during that brief conversation we had.
“He was telling me Coach Hartline was a great coach and talking about the route running and the contested catches he makes. Just watching him do that has been a little inspiring.”
So combine that with Day’s ability to scheme, and it’s not hard to see why Ohio State poured gas on the receiver fire. PFF had Olave charted for an FBS best 87% of his targets coming with more than a yard of separation in 2019. Wilson, on the other hand, had PFF’s No. 6 grade against single coverage, and he was 8th in separation rate.
All of this adds up to Ohio State now having what appears to be the deepest receiver room in America.
In addition to the household names with Olave and Wilson, both of whom are going to be obvious first-round picks in all the way-too-early mock drafts, look at what’s behind them:
- 3-star Chris Olave, No. 68 WR (2018)
- 5-star Garrett Wilson, No. 2 WR (2019)
- 5-star Julian Fleming, No. 1 WR (2020)
- 5-star Jaxson Smith-Njigba, No. 5 WR (2020)
- 5-star Emeka Egbuka, No. 1 WR (2021)
- 4-star Gee Scott Jr., No. 10 WR (2020)
- 4-star Kamryn Babb, No. 13 WR (2018)
- 4-star Jameson Williams, No. 13 WR (2019)
- 4-star Marvin Harrison Jr., No. 14 WR (2021)
- 4-star Jayden Ballard, No. 15 WR (2021)
That’s 9 Ohio State players who were top-15 receivers and ranked in the top 100 overall in their respective classes. Again, that’s not including the No. 1 receiver in the 2022 class, Burton, who is committed to the Buckeyes. If he signs with Ohio State and maintains his ranking, it’ll mark the third consecutive year that the Buckeyes landed the No. 1 receiver in America.
(In case you were wondering, Alabama will have 4 players on the 2021 roster who signed with the Crimson Tide as top-15 receivers and top-100 recruits nationally. LSU and Oklahoma will also each have 4 and Georgia will have 5.)
Who will be throwing to those guys, you ask? Redshirt freshman quarterback CJ Stroud, who was the No. 3 quarterback recruit in 2020 behind Bryce Young and D.J. Uiagalelei, is the favorite to replace Fields. Classmate and fellow 4-star recruit Jack Miller is also involved in a 3-way battle in camp. Behind them is 5-star 2021 signee Kyle McCord. Eventually, the No. 1 overall player in the 2022 class, Quinn Ewers, is expected to take his talents to Columbus. So no, there’s not much of a reason to expect Ohio State’s elite passing game recruiting to slow down anytime soon.
The better question is if anyone else can bring in more talent at the wide receiver position.
Can anyone threaten the Buckeyes?
LSU just matched the Buckeyes with 3 top-15 receivers in the 2021 class, though Ed Orgeron overhauled the majority of his offensive staff. The good news for LSU is that receivers coach Mickey Joseph is still there, and the passing game didn’t revert to its pre-2019 ways after Joe Brady left for the NFL.
One would think Georgia would be an obvious candidate to get back to signing top receiver talent, though even Todd Monken’s more receiver-friendly offense didn’t result in elite wideout recruits flocking to Athens in 2021. Perhaps a full year of seeing the system on display with JT Daniels and Co. will change that.
With Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma already has commitments from 2 of the top 10 receivers in the 2022 class after it signed a total of 4 top-15 wideouts in the last 3 classes (that’s still half as many as Ohio State). With Steve Sarkisian now on board, Texas has a commitment from a top-5 receiver in the 2022 class, though it hasn’t signed a top-15 receiver since 2019.
The place where Sarkisian just left, Alabama, is clearly in the best position to match or exceed Ohio State in terms of recruiting wideouts. But in addition to losing Sarkisian, Alabama also lost 3 other key assistants who did the heavy lifting on the recruiting trail. The No. 1 recruiter in the nation in the 2021 cycle, Charles Huff, just took the head job at Marshall. The No. 2 recruiter in the 2021 cycle, Karl Scott, left to become Minnesota Vikings defensive backs coach. The No. 7 recruiter, Jeff Banks, left Alabama and joined forces with Sarkisian at Texas. All 3 of those coaches helped sign the Crimson Tide’s 4 top-15 wideouts in the 2021 class.
That’s not to say Alabama’s recruiting will slip, by any means. Receivers coach Holmon Wiggins is the unsung hero in Tuscaloosa, both for how he helped develop the receiver room in 2019-20 after Nick Saban poached him from Virginia Tech, and for his recruiting trail contributions the last couple of classes. Sarkisian reportedly tried to poach him, but Wiggins decided to stay at Alabama. How long Saban can keep Wiggins on board remains to be seen.
Perhaps the same could be said about Day keeping Hartline in Columbus. Hartline (only) made $550,000 in 2020, which was No. 146 among FBS assistants. That was actually after he got a 53% raise from his original deal of $360,000. He’s an Ohio native coaching at his alma mater, so Day also has that working in his favor if and when bigger jobs come calling for Hartline.
For now, though, Ohio State is thriving off its stability. The combination of Day and Hartline is proving to be a unique duo.
Will that be what gets the Buckeyes over the hump and back on top for the first time since Year 1 of the Playoff era? Time will tell. One thing is obvious, though.
That receiver well in Columbus isn’t drying up anytime soon.