Before KJ Hill was Ohio State’s all-time leader in receptions he was committed to Arkansas. The Little Rock native was going to be a Razorback.
When Urban Meyer hired Chris Ash to take over the Buckeye defense prior to the 2014 season, Ash told him about Hill, who was being recruited while he was at Arkansas. Meyer offered Hill in March, but he didn’t commit until signing day. He chose the Buckeyes over Arkansas and Alabama.
Hill redshirted as a true freshman, then had the distinction of scoring the first touchdown of the 2016 season — a 47-yard bomb down the seam from JT Barrett against Bowling Green. Hill caught 18 passes for 262 yard and one touchdown that season.
Hill spent the next two years as a co-starter in the slot with Parris Campbell. Hill caught 126 passes for 1,434 yards and nine touchdowns in those two seasons. Last year as a fifth-year senior, he put up 57 receptions for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns. He finished with a school record 201 receptions. Those catches produced 2,332 yards and 20 touchdowns.
There was no co-starter for Hill last season, which is a concern for Buckeye head coach Ryan Day heading into 2020.
When you look at Ohio State’s current roster and the possibilities to replace KJ Hill in the slot, there are only three returning players with any experience, and one of them — Demario McCall — will likely be at running back for a second year in a row.
That leaves CJ Saunders and Jaelen Gill, who have combined for 34 career catches, with 17 of those coming from Saunders in 2017.
Saunders may not even be on the team, however, as he is looking for a sixth year of eligibility. And then even if that happens, will he want his final year to take place at Ohio State? Everyone wants him back, including the freshmen behind him who he has taken under his wing. Still, Saunders missed all of 2019, so there are question marks.
Gill caught six passes for 51 yards and a touchdown last season. This is his third year at Ohio State and he has seven career receptions to his name so far. Those seven receptions, however, are seven more than Terry McLaurin and Parris Campbell had in their first two years as Buckeyes.
Freshmen Mookie Cooper and Jaxon Smith-Njigba are already enrolled and will begin their careers on the inside. Cooper — at 5-10 195 — is different than any other receiver on the roster. He is the guy designed to do damage after the catch on quick screens and the like. Smith-Njigba can be compared to a faster KJ Hill.
Those are the names we know, but could somebody like redshirt sophomore Kamryn Babb or McCall get into the mix if players aren’t stepping up? Or even a third freshman in Julian Fleming?
Even though CJ Saunders’ status may still be up in the air, that won’t stop him from participating in spring ball. He and Jaelen Gill should be the top two H-backs in the spring. Gill was fantastic when the media was allowed to watch in the spring last year, so expect him to do well this spring as well.
Last year, Garrett Wilson stood out immediately in the spring as a true freshman. Can Jaxon Smith-Njigba or Mookie Cooper do that? Cooper didn’t play last year due to transfer rules, so he may take a little bit longer to simply get his timing down.
The spring could also be an opportunity to look at other guys in the slot as receivers coach Brian Hartline works on getting his players ready to jump into any receiver position.
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Ryan Day is certainly concerned about the H-back spot, as he is with all of the receiver positions. There is not much depth returning anywhere, which creates plenty of questions.
Jaelen Gill should be able to step forward and provide something like Parris Campbell provided in 2017 when he caught 40 passes for 584 yards and three touchdowns. Campbell also carried the ball 10 times for 132 yards and a touchdown on sweeps.
CJ Saunders will provide experience and leadership, but we have seen him held back from the top two spots before. Mookie Cooper may get some opportunities late in games, not unlike what Jameson Williams went through last year as a true freshman.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba could walk out of fall camp in the two deep in the slot, essentially making him a starter. He does everything well and is learning the nuances of life in the slot. Whoever ends up in the slot will also need to block, and if they can’t, you’ll see more two tight end sets once again.
If players don’t step up, then you could probably go ahead and consider junior tight end Jeremy Ruckert as the starting H-back.