Sports

Wide Receiver U? Ohio State’s latest pass-catching stars want the title

COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Pierre Charles L’Enfant laid out the plans for the city that would become Washington, D.C., he purposely sought to both inspire visitors and intimidate foes by way of Rome-inspired towering architecture, monuments and marble. A century and a half later, Howard Dwight Smith did the same when he designed Ohio Stadium, adorning the Horseshoe with a Rotunda inspired by the Pantheon, eliciting gasps from Ohio State fans and shivers from those who dared to oppose the home team.

That same DNA of shock and awe can be found a short walk from the ‘Shoe, in the lobby layout of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. That’s where a pair of two-story walls are covered in trophies earned via 54 bowl trips, 41 conference championships and eight national titles, those cups and sculptures connected by a collection of floor displays featuring seven Heisman Trophies won.

The room highlights multiple long lists of legendary names. There are so many stockpiles of linemen, tight ends and bulldozer runners. But if you’re looking for wide receivers, you’re going have to put in some time and perhaps even bring a magnifying glass.

Until you get to the here and now.

“You come to Ohio State to be part of the best wide receiver corps that I think there’s ever been, because there’s a torch that has been passed to us and that pushes us to defend that legacy,” said Emeka Egbuka, the current team leader with 41 catches and the ninth-best receiver in the nation in yards per game with an average of 105 over seven games.

Hang on. Did you say best there’s ever been?

“Yes sir,” Egbuka said. “I believe that. Everyone in our position group believes that. We all do. We have to.”

Every classic college football program likes to proudly declare it is the official university of some particular position group. Penn State has always laid claim to Linebacker U. An internet search for “Quarterback U” produces a list that ranges from USC and Miami to BYU and NC State. In 2019, LSU and Texas famously feuded over the rights to Defensive Back U. The Horns even wore DBU T-shirts during pregame warm-ups, before being outplayed by the Tigers.

But with the greatest respect to Cris Carter, David Boston and Terry Glenn, at no point has anyone ever dared to declare the Ohio State University as Wide Receiver U. Well, until now. And those who do have a rather good case.

Yes, those six Heisman legends (Archie Griffin won two) were all running backs, with the exception of QB Troy Smith in 2006. Of the school’s 32 members of the College Football Hall of Fame, none are true wide receivers and two are listed as “end.” Of the Buckeyes’ 213 all-time All-American selections, there are tight ends scattered around, but only five of those honors were awarded to true wideouts and between 1914 and 2020, they had only three in Carter, Boston and Glenn.

But one year ago, the Buckeyes had two in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, now rookie starters with the New Orleans Saints and New York Jets, respectively. Entering this season, they had one receiver on the preseason All-American team in Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who is still on the mend from a Week 1 hamstring injury. Last week, when the midseason awards were announced, there were a pair of OSU wideouts on most lists, Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr. Those honors were announced leading up to a game at Iowa when those two and teammates Julian Fleming and Mitch Rossi each hauled in a TD catch against the Hawkeyes.

Egbuka, Harrison and tight end Cade Stover each have at least one catch in all seven games this season. Those three and Fleming have combined for 30 plays of 20-plus yards. Harrison, Egbuka and Fleming are among the nation’s TD reception leaders with a combined 23. Harrison’s 10 touchdowns rank second in the nation, and he is the first receiver to have three games of three TD catches in the 132-year history of Ohio State football. All cogs in the extremely fast wheel that is college football’s second-highest-scoring offense, trailing only Tennessee.

“When you just get around them, you realize that, for their age, they don’t look like they’re 18, 19, 20. They don’t talk like it, they don’t act like it, they don’t speak like it, but they are,” explains Ryan Day, now in his fourth full season as Ohio State’s coach. “It’s pretty remarkable sometimes when you think about who they are as people and just the maturity level of all those guys.”

“I think one of the greatest skills about our team is that they love to play,” offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. “They love the challenge of solving problems: ‘OK, look, I didn’t expect this guy to be as wide this alignment,’ or ‘I didn’t expect this defender to challenge me as much,’ or ‘I didn’t expect as much pressure or movement up front.’ But now you’re getting it. How do you handle it? Good teams handle that on the sideline, during halftime and during the game. Bad teams come in on Sunday and talk about what they should have done.”

Now, to be fair, the quarterback tossing the football to these vaunted receivers is pretty good, too. C.J. Stroud is on every sportswriter’s Heisman watch list and every pro scout’s NFL draft board. But even he knows his so-called supporting cast is made up of stars.

“They have told me that they always trust me to have the ball where they need it to be, and I really appreciate that,” the QB said after the team’s Week 3 win over Toledo. “And I always trust them to be where they are supposed to be, and sometimes even where they aren’t supposed to be because they are doing work to make my throw look better than it actually was!”

Stroud was talking about a pass he had thrown into the right rear corner of the end zone that was intended for Harrison but wound up being snagged by Fleming for a tiptoe TD when the third-year wideout unknowingly stepped in front of his more famous teammate.

The laugh that accompanied Stroud’s explanation was met with responsive chuckles from Fleming, Harrison, Egbuka and even the injured Smith-Njigba. Those chuckles were telling, not simply about that play, but the room in which the film of that play would be dissected the following week.

“We’re best friends in the room. Like, these are the guys I choose to spend my time with outside of football,” said Egbuka, sporting a sweat-covered grin following a midweek practice ahead of Saturday’s trip to Penn State. Last season he shared an apartment with Harrison and Jayden Ballard. This year they might as well still be living together, because if they aren’t in meetings or practice, they’re playing Madden or going to the movies. “There’s no selfishness within the room. Whenever someone scores a touchdown, it’s just like we all score.”

They do all score, just as they all catch balls. No less than a dozen Ohio State receivers and tight ends have at least one reception this season and eight have a TD catch. In a building full of position rooms packed with five-star signees, none of those rooms is more talent rich than the wide receiver corner of the Buckeyes’ roster. And no receiver room anywhere, at any school, no matter if they have ever dared claim to be Wide Receiver U, is deeper than the current group in Columbus.

At a lot places, particularly in the still-new era of the transfer portal, that kind of overwhelming depth can also become an overwhelming problem. (And it should be noted that former Alabama star Jameson Williams transferred from OSU, as did Ohio Bobcat Sam Wiglusz, who has 49 catches and seven TDs.) Not enough balls to go around. This group, at least for now, understands that patience in the short run will earn long-term rewards. If they need to see proof of that fact, they need look no further than the people around them in that position group as well as those who were in that room not so long ago.

“It started back with Terry McLaurin, Parris Campbell, with Johnny Dixon. And they just brought this certain level of accountability to that world,” Day said of three Buckeyes wideouts who were members of the 2015 CFP national title team and were all drafted by NFL teams in 2019. “Chris Olave and guys picked it up over time, and now you’re seeing Emeka and Marvin and Julian really taking over. And they cut their teeth on special teams. They come in as freshmen and they put their work in and kind of show up and play in the second half of the season. And then by the time they get to that second year, they’re ready to go. And that’s kind of in the blueprint for them. And it’s working.”

Working because they are putting in the work. Every Ohio State receiver loves to talk about the fun they have in the film room, but to a man they are also quick to remind that when it comes to buckle down for football prep, they can shift from goofy to serious as quickly as they can turn and burn on a helpless backpedaling defensive back.

That is a learned approach. Harrison’s pedigree is well known to anyone who has watched any pro football over the past two decades. His father, Marvin Sr., owned an entire chapter of the NFL record book and a Super Bowl ring after more than a decade with the Indianapolis Colts, playing pitch-and-catch with fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. So, it should surprise no one to learn that Harrison’s weekday work ethic has already become the stuff of scarlet and gray legend. As representatives from a visiting TV network were recently holding pregame meetings with Day and his staff, they heard the smack-smack-smack of leather against gloves on the nearby practice field. When they looked to see who it was, they watched Harrison running routes by himself, loading the Jugs pitching machine and going through every page of the playcalling scenarios for that weekend’s game.

The rest of the room certainly feeds off of Harrison’s energy and example, but the others also didn’t require much if any motivation when it comes to a desire for preparation. Since March 2017, any and every would-be ball catcher who has donned a silver helmet in the Horseshoe has been immersed in the world and mind of Brian Hartline.

The former Ohio State receiver and seven-year NFL veteran, Columbus-area convenience store mogul and OSU passing game coordinator has also been wide receivers coach since 2018. He was moved into that job after one season as a graduate assistant/offensive quality control assistant. That promotion came after the departure of Zach Smith, the assistant coach who was fired after he was charged with violating a personal protection order and prior allegations of domestic violence came to light. The repercussions of Ohio State’s subsequent investigation of Smith and head coach Urban Meyer reverberated for months, all the way through Meyer’s retirement at the end of the ’18 season. Meyer was succeeded by Day, and Smith was officially replaced by Hartline.

A year later, the Buckeyes made it to the College Football Playoff. The following year, in 2020, Hartline was named National Recruiter of the Year by 247Sports, thanks is no small part to landing Fleming and Smith-Njigba, who joined a room that already had Olave and Wilson. Shortly after, Harrison and Ballard also committed.

“We as a group, we fit together like pieces, we are different in ways that complement each other, the way we play — see how Marv plays, see how I play, see how Jaxon plays, it’s different skill sets — and Coach Hart, he fits in like that, too,” Egbuka said. He points to that well-designed puzzle as the reason that when the room’s OG leader, Smith-Njigba, finally returns to full power, he will be able to step right back into the lineup without disrupting the current, very well-oiled offensive machine.

“Now, I’m not gonna sit here and lie and say that [Hartline] is not a goof,” Egbuka continues. “He’ll cut up in the receiver room just as much as we do. But when it’s time to handle business and lock in, he’s one that’s really good at doing that. He’s a perfectionist like us. He recruits thinking about the room, where would this guy fit in? Would he fit in? And can that guy be a part of our discussions? You caught the ball, but this could have been better. Let’s all make each other better. That starts with Coach Hart.”

“I am a believer in coaching who you have in the room instead of trying to make everyone in the room do the same thing and run the same route and just do what we tell them to do,” Hartline said at the end of September. “That’s how I wanted to be coached. That’s how the guys I played with wanted to be coached. As individuals who believe in what they can do and they want to share that not because they’ll post big numbers, but because they know that it will contribute to the team. When you can make that work, that’s the best kind of football right there.”

It’s also what started the process of transitioning the Ohio State receiving corps from very good to very great in a very short period time. A spark unexpectedly lit by the same internal fire that once seemed like it might have the potential to burn down the building. Instead, that building is now full of pass-catching potential.

No, you won’t find a lot of wide receiving awards or plaques hanging on the walls of the Woody Hayes Center among all the Heisman and Rose Bowl trophies. Not yet anyway. But if you’re in that lobby, turn to the left and take a look at that other wall, the one covered in the framed jerseys of the Ohio State alums currently playing in the NFL. When the 2022 season kicked off, there were 65 Buckeyes on active NFL rosters. Ten of them were wideouts.

Tuesday afternoon, Marvin Harrison Jr. moved through that lobby, headphones on, and without realizing he was being watched, turned to look at those jerseys and gave them a little point as if to say, “See y’all soon, but first I got to go to work.”

Ohio State as Wide Receiver U? If not yet, it sure feels like it’s coming.

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