Since Urban Meyer’s arrival, the H-back/slot receiver has been the focal point of the Ohio State passing game.
The role of the position changes depending on the receiver manning it, and it has fluctuated from the likes of Philly Brown to Dontre Wilson to Jalin Marshall, then to Braxton Miller and Curtis Samuel, then most recently to Parris Campbell and KJ Hill.
It has been the position that has produced the most receptions each year, save for 2015 when Michael Thomas was a fourth-year junior.
As the Buckeye passing game grew and improved, so did the numbers.
In 2013, Brown and Wilson combined for 85 receptions. In 2016, it was Samuel and Wilson combining for 101 catches.
Things then went a bit crazy in 2018 when Campbell (90) and Hill (68) posted a combined 158 catches for 1,928 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Heading into last season, with Campbell’s departure to the NFL, finding somebody to pair with Hill was a huge priority, but it never quite materialized. Head coach Ryan Day went into last season planning to play more two tight end sets, which was going to cut into the snaps for the H-backs. Instead, it just cut into the snaps for the second H-back because they didn’t have anybody else they were comfortable enough to play.
Now with Hill gone to the NFL, no amount of tight ends will be able to cover OSU’s lack of a viable H-back or two.
Which is one of the reasons the Buckeyes have started out freshman receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba on the inside. It’s also why incoming freshman Cameron Martinez will get a look on both offense and defense.
Together, Smith-Njigba and Martinez were arguably the most productive playmakers in OSU’s 2020 signing class. Martinez rushed for 2,124 yards as a senior quarterback for Muskegon High School in Michigan, and Smith-Njigba put up over 2,000 yards receiving at Rockwall High School in Rockwall, Texas.
Missouri freshman Mookie Cooper is already enrolled after missing his senior season of high school due to transfer rules. He is unlike anybody else Ohio State has at the position. At 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, there are hopeful comparisons to Purdue’s Rondale Moore.
But there are veterans around as well. The Buckeyes are still hopeful they will get a sixth year out of CJ Saunders, who missed last season with an injury. Saunders caught 10 passes in 2018, which came after a surprising 2017 where he posted 17 catches for 221 yards and a touchdown.
The other veteran is Jaelen Gill, who now heads into his redshirt sophomore season with seven career catches. There was a very bright glimmer of hope last season at Rutgers, however, when he scored his first career touchdown on a catch and run featuring so much of what Gill had shown in spring ball prior to the season.
So the task for receivers coach Brian Hartline this spring and summer is to find a couple of guys who can combine for around 100 catches this season, out of a pool of receivers with 34 career receptions — of which 27 of those receptions may not be back for a sixth year.
“That’s a huge deal for us figuring out where that inside guy is going to come from,” Day said. “But again, really the only guy that’s been a starter is Chris [Olave]. All those other guys, Garrett [Wilson] and Jameson [Williams], all those guys, have to step up. And you’re talking about Jaylen Harris and Ellijah Gardiner and Jaelen Gill, those guys have to step up their game up now. They’re now at three years into the program. They have to take the next step for us. So, yeah, H is a concern, but really all those positions are.”
Ideally, the Buckeyes will be able to field co-starters at every position, and it is quite possible that a true freshman like Jaxon Smith-Njigba or Mookie Cooper will be in the two-deep at H-back this season.
But it doesn’t stop there.
According to Day, all of the freshman receivers — including Gee Scott and Julian Fleming on the outside — have a legitimate shot at being co-starters this season.
“They all do. They all do,” Day said. “I mean, it’s not like we’re coming back with five or six returning starters like we have in the past couple of years. That’s a huge emphasis point. Brian has his hands full this spring, making sure we get guys ready to go.”