COLUMBUS — There’s going to be a moment when Ohio State receivers coach Brian Hartline turns from coach to juggler.
That’s the nature of leading highly-recruited, highly-talented young athletes in the year 2020. Coaches are developers of football players into men, but they’re also jugglers of egos, experience and expectations. Exactly how much a coach is willing to juggle those things depends on a number of factors, but just how talented a young athlete is plays the largest role of all, generally speaking.
And when it comes to the four true freshmen receivers at Ohio State, talent is one thing that the group of Julian Fleming, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Gee Scott and Mookie Cooper have in spades. In fact, the only thing that they may have more are those pesky expectations.
Those expectations help provide a glimpse into the psyche of some Buckeyes fans who, as Smith-Njigba and Scott lost their black stripe a week ago, began voicing real concerns over whether or not Fleming, the country’s top-ranked receiver in the recruiting Class of 2020, was not living up this recruiting rankings.
Fleming lost his stripe, a symbolic gesture by the coaching staff that suggests a player has done all the right things to really be considered a Buckeye, three days later. For three players who come from three different corners of the country and from three very different styles of offense, it’s reasonable to expect that things will happen for each receiver differently. Getting his young wideouts to grasp that now is going to be one of the toughest challenges yet for the young Ohio State receivers coach.
“The biggest thing I try to have a conversation with these athletes about is that it’s OK, it’s OK to share goals, but don’t think you’re going to share paths,” Hartline told the media on Tuesday. “Everyone is going to have a different path. Different guys need different things, and to sit around and compare yourself to your peers, in most lights? It doesn’t help you.
“It’s not about what they’re doing. It’s about what you’re doing. Our end goal can be the same but the path in which I get there can be different and not being frustrated because social media is crazy and the expectations? We can talk about expectations forever, but usually the expectations that are on you aren’t given to yourself, usually someone places them on you and you allow them to be on you.”
Allowing those expectations means, usually, that a player believes he’ll meet them. That’s why the country’s best players choose a place like Ohio State and why they give up time with family and friends to enroll early with the Buckeyes. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the rewards that usually come from early-enrollment haven’t been there. Instead, the freshmen class has been put on hold — on the field anyway. Rather than learning the ins and outs of life as a college football player, the young Ohio State receivers have been out of campus much more than they ever intended to be.
“They lost it in a physical manner, but we spent a lot of time on Zooms and we tried to capitalize and maximize our time being apart,” Hartline said of the missed time during spring and summer. “It gives us an opportunity to be with our families and focus on academics and really get prepared in a different light. I think at this point, we’ve done a really good job to set ourselves up for success and now it’s just comes down to maximizing the opportunities when it comes to us.”
It’s a challenging time for everyone around the Ohio State football program but few people in the Buckeyes program had been looking forward to getting back on the field as scheduled than Mookie Cooper had. The dynamic receiver from St. Louis was ruled ineligible during his senior year of high school football after transferring to a new school following his junior year, a decision that crushed his usually affable spirit and helped cement his decision to enroll early in Columbus. Though he’s not been on the field in competition for almost two years now, he’s still impressing his new coaches.
“Mookie is much further along than I, frankly, anticipated,” Hartline said. “He is removed from [missing] football his senior year, he did play a lot of running back in high school but his natural approach to receiver play — it’s funny, we’ll do some drills sometimes and I’ll be coaching up on him, and it may not be quite right, but then he’ll just run out there and do it and it’s perfect — but his natural ability to just play football and fill space. He does things you can’t even really coach.”
That’s Cooper’s path. It’s different. So is the road that Fleming, Smith-Njigba and Scott took to Ohio State. Their careers will move at different speeds, just like they do on the field. What won’t change is what it takes to get on the field at Ohio Stadium. That’s the goal after all, right?
“The biggest thing we’re looking [at] for guys to be on the field is consistency,” Hartline shared. “Those that we can trust to do their job — if you’re on the field we really don’t have any worries about you making certain plays or being able to make the play — it’s more about when you don’t get the ball. Are you in great position? Do we feel you in the run game? Are you getting your job done when you’re at the point of attack? All of these things will play a part.
“Consistency is more important than ever. The ability to not make silly mistakes as we see on Saturdays and Sundays is more prevalent than ever. So, I think guys that are the most consistent at this point will probably see themselves on the field a lot more, being worked in in certain ways. There’s a big push of trust. We’ve always had great trust around here, but with how much we’ve been removed from our current situation, that will play a big part.”
Trust goes both ways and if the Buckeyes want to get the most out of these four future stars at wideout, they’ll need to trust that Brian Hartline and Ryan Day will guide them on the right road for them, personally. With one of the country’s most complete and most dangerous offenses, Ohio State doesn’t need to rush Fleming, Smith-Njigba, Gee Scott or Mookie Cooper along. They need to develop them at their own speed.
That should make Hartline’s juggling act that much easier.