Winter workouts are the first chapter of any college football season. It is also where new leaders begin to emerge.
At Ohio State, new leaders are needed in the receivers room, but according to the newly arrived freshmen pass catchers, there have been plenty to lean upon.
Ohio State signed four receivers in the 2020 class. Julian Fleming, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Gee Scott, and Mookie Cooper are all Top 100 recruits, making them quite possibly the best receiver haul in OSU history.
The Buckeyes lost three senior receivers from last year’s team, which came one year after losing three seniors following the 2018 season. With that kind of turnover, it isn’t a surprise that Ohio State would be looking at a dearth of experience.
Fortunately for the Buckeyes — young and old — the returning receivers have been there every step of the way for the rookies.
“One person I can definitely look up to is Chris Olave,” said Scott. “He’s pushing me on multiple levels, being attentive in the film room or in school or in important workouts. He’s making sure I’m on my A game and he’s going to hold you accountable. I appreciate that.”
Olave is still just a rising junior, but spent his first two years learning alongside guys like Terry McLaurin, Parris Campbell, and KJ Hill, who have all been coaches’ favorites in their time at Ohio State. As the most productive returnee — 49 receptions for 849 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, Olave’s time is now to lead this group of receivers forward.
But he’s not been alone this winter.
“Kamryn Babb, Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, Jameson Williams. There’s a lot of leaders in this group,” said Smith-Njigba. “When you’ve got good leaders and great players, you just watch them. They do it well. They do what they’re supposed to do. You just want to follow that and have the same mindset as them and just push to be better.”
Of those players mentioned by Smith-Njigba, Babb and Olave are headed into year three, while Wilson and Williams are only in year two.
This is not a veteran group, but they’re getting there day by day, and they’re bringing the freshmen along with them.
The coaches call it culture. It’s trusting in the struggle and having the desire to leave the place better than the way you found it. The culture has been built throughout the Ohio State football program, and even with a hotshot group of four highly-touted freshman receivers, the guys who have been through it before are doing what they can to make sure the new guys don’t get overwhelmed.
Those veterans — no matter their number of career catches or starts — are being hailed as leaders by the freshmen, which is a great sign for what is to come.
“Jaylen Harris, I didn’t know him that much before, but since I’ve been here, he’s been helping me a lot,” said Cooper. “Kam Babb and Jameson Williams. And CJ Saunders. Him and Jay Harris, I would say are probably the top two that have been pushing me. CJ, I feel like he’s probably the hardest-working person I’ve met since I’ve been here out of the receivers. He’s got a lot of heart in him. He works hard. I feel like he’s going to be the one to make sure that I’m on track with everything.”
As the elder statesman of the group, the sixth-year senior Saunders was mentioned by more than one freshman.
“CJ Saunders, we go lift every Saturday morning. I’ve been with him a lot. He’s one of the people taking me under him, showing me the ropes,” said Fleming. “He’s a great leader, he’s a great person. I definitely see him being a coach in the future if he that has option. Honestly, all of them. Everyone works out together, so it’s just constantly pushing each other to be the best we can be.”
Buckeye head coach Ryan Day has spoken of the need for receivers to step forward and produce this season, but the need to lead is important as well.
There is something to be said for having upperclassmen like CJ Saunders, Jaylen Harris, and Kamryn Babb — and their 13 combined receptions over the past two seasons — helping and pushing the very freshmen who have come to Ohio State to possibly take their minutes this coming season.
With that kind of leadership, the freshmen are learning quite well what the Brotherhood is actually about.
“I mean, really, it’s all the receivers. They’ve helped us a lot,” Fleming said. “We all kind of look out for each other. We work out together. We just constantly push each other to be better and continue to improve. Picking stuff out like ‘Hey, your start was bad.’ ‘Hey, your top end was bad.’ ‘Hey, your hands were not up when they should have been up.’ ‘Your break was late.’ Anything like that, so it’s just being able to continue to improve and work off each other.”