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How Garrett Wilson is going to break Ohio State’s return drought

Garrett Wilson-Ohio State-Ohio State football-Buckeyes
Garrett Wilson can grow into a dangerous punt returner for Ohio State. (Sammy Silverman/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

How Garrett Wilson is going to break Ohio State’s return drought

COLUMBUS — Garrett Wilson grew more comfortable throughout his freshman campaign at Ohio State.

His production continued to tick upward. He was on the field for key moments. Wilson became one of Justin Fields’ favorite targets, no matter where he lined up.

But he also proved to be valuable to the Ohio State special teams unit. Wilson’s explosiveness and his ability to slip between the cracks allowed him to carve out a role as a punt returner. And with another year of experience under his belt, he might just be the dangerous weapon the Buckeyes have been lacking for the better part of a decade.

“I didn’t really expect anything [right away],” Wilson said late last season of his role entering his freshman year. “I kind of just came in, you know, big program, we’ve got a great team. Where I fit in, that’s where I’m going to be. When I get called on, I just want to make my play.”

He certainly did that. Wilson was expected to be a contributor on offense, and he was certainly effective as a first-year wide receiver. But once he began fielding punts, he began to shine there, too. There was the 52-yard punt return against Miami (Ohio) in September. There was the 23-yard punt return that was almost broken for a touchdown in the Big Ten showdown against Wisconsin late in October.

Garrett Wilson-Ohio State-Ohio State football-Buckeyes

Garrett Wilson nearly had a touchdown on a punt return for Ohio State.

And there were plenty of other instances that showed Wilson is instinctive enough to be a viable option for the Buckeyes moving forward. His wide receiver skills that made him a five-star talent out of Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas, made him a weapon in the return game.

“I think when you look at [Wilson’s] background, his basketball background, his spatial awareness is off the charts,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “His range is really good. He can operate in short areas. And the other thing for him is he can time up [routes] down the field. He’s got a unique skill set.

“But I think his ability to catch the ball, put it away, run after the catch so quickly is something you want out of a slot receiver. And running option routes, setting up defenders and understanding space and everything like that, it happens a lot faster in there. But I think his skill set fits that.”

Garrett Wilson-Ohio State-Ohio State football-Buckeyes

Garrett Wilson is a dangerous return option for Ohio State.

Those skills don’t make him mistake-proof, though.

Wilson muffed a punt in November against Rutgers and set the Scarlet Knights up with great field position. They took advantage of Wilson’s mishap and scored a few plays later.

Even with that turnover, Day made sure to assure that he had faith that Wilson can be a reliable punt returner moving forward.

“He’s certainly a young player who made a mistake,” Day said in November. “He’s going to learn from it and move on, but he’s going to practice better. Again, a lot of it goes back to how you practice. If you’re going to practice intently and do a good job with that, then, yeah, we’re going to have confidence because we see it in practice.”

They certainly saw it in practice. Because Wilson continued to return punts against Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and against Clemson at the Fiesta Bowl. He showed he can do it in the biggest games of the season.

He’ll likely be trusted to do it again this season.

“We think he obviously has a tremendous ceiling, and he’s growing every week,” Day said late in the season last year. “He’s understanding how to practice. He’s understanding how to play within the offense. But I feel like his maturity level, it’s kind of like how Chris Olave came on late in the season last year as a freshman.”

The progress came as the season went on last year. And the punt returns for touchdowns — which hasn’t been seen at Ohio State in what seems like an eternity — will soon follow during Garrett Wilson’s Ohio State career.

Spencer Holbrook

Spencer Holbrook covers Ohio State football and basketball for Lettermen Row. A graduate of Ohio University's Scripps School of Journalism, he's in his second year covering the Buckeyes. He was previously the sports editor at Ohio's student newspaper, The Post, where he covered Ohio University football and men's basketball.