COLUMBUS — It’s not every year Ohio State will have to replace the program’s all-time receptions leader. But this is one of those offseasons.
As the Buckeyes opened spring practice Monday, the effort to replace K.J. Hill was already well underway. Ryan Day has had Hill in the slot since his first season as quarterbacks coach three seasons ago. Hill was a constant in the potent Ohio State offense. Now, the production has to come from somewhere else.
The Buckeyes know how important the slot receiver position is within the offense. They’re already working to find a new go-to for Justin Fields, and they have options.
“It’s a transition spot for us,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “Last year we used some two tight end stuff to kind of supplement K.J. a little bit. We’re hoping to get C.J. Saunders back, but we also have Garrett [Wilson] in there. We have Demario McCall. We have Jaxon [Smith-Njigba]. We have Mookie [Cooper]. So, we have a couple of guys in there that were out of practice today.
“It was a good day honestly for the first day just seeing those guys playing the slot was pretty natural. So I thought today was a good start. We’ll see how we get going through the rest of spring.”
There are plenty of options for Day and wide receivers coach Brian Hartline. They could go with playing experience in the slot. Saunders is still waiting on word from the NCAA regarding his eligibility. The Buckeyes could work Wilson into that role. He was used as a traditional outside receiver last season but could become a more versatile weapon inside and out for the Buckeyes this fall. Smith-Njigba proved he can play at any spot when he broke Texas high school football records. McCall has never panned out, but he could find a niche there. And Mookie Cooper might be the most prototypical slot receiver on the roster.
All of them have a chance. It’s one of the most open positions in spring practice. And it’s one of the most important in Day’s offense.
There were plenty of plans to work others into the slot last season to ease the transition from last year to this year. But Hill made it hard to take him off the field. He was too productive to be on the sideline watching. So the plans never came to be.
“We got into a rhythm a little bit of K.J. was in the slot and then we were getting some [two-tight end] personnel,” Day said. “So we never got quite that far with Demario. But we’re going to — this spring he’s going to play some running back. He’s going to line up at slot and do both of those things.”
If not McCall, there are a bevy of younger receivers who would love to claim that spot on the field. Maybe Cooper can find a way to break out as a freshman and earn a role. He would provide an element of speed, but he’ll have to show consistency over the next four months to prove he’s capable. Because he certainly feels like that spot fits what he does well, and it fits what he could do well for the Buckeyes.
“I think it’s the exact same position I just played in high school, so I feel like that was the best thing I could come in and do,” Cooper said in February. “Learning from the older guys, just learning from them and learning the offense, and I just feel like that’s going to be the best thing for me.”
And then there’s Wilson, who showed he can be effective any way the Buckeyes can get the ball in his hands, whether it was deep balls, shallow crossing patterns or routes across the middle. He can do it all. And it takes versatility to be Ohio State’s slot.
The Buckeyes have some time to find a slot receiver that can be productive. But it won’t be easy to replace the all-time leader in receptions. That doesn’t happen over night. One of the talented receivers will step in
“My strengths being my quickness, basically knowing the knowledge of the game, leverage and how to attack somebody. In the slot, that’s all you do,” Hill said last week at the NFL Combine. “And when I was in the slot, I feel like I did well with those things, and that separated me a lot.”
Hill is gone from the Ohio State offense. Somebody else has to do those things well now.
Good thing the Buckeyes have options.