COLUMBUS — Brian Hartline still has a lot to learn about his wide receivers at Ohio State.
After only three practices, spring camp ended much earlier than anticipated for the Buckeyes. And with just two proven playmakers on the roster, Hartline will have to learn more about his receivers remotely.
In what was supposed to be a huge spring for the state of the position, early-enrollee wide receivers Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Julian Fleming, Gee Scott and Mookie Cooper were set to battle for playing time in their first few months on campus. Now they’re all at home, the Buckeyes still don’t know how well that high school talent from one of the best receiving hauls in recruiting history will translate and Hartline only has three practices and hours of FaceTime calls to assess until they get back to Ohio State.
But those three practices at least allowed the former pro receiver and current ace position coach to form his first impressions of his young, talented room.
“The biggest impression is how competitive they are, how much they care about it, how much it matters to them,” Hartline said. “Those are the things that jumped out. They have an uncanny ability to make plays, and they want to help their teammates. They’re very coachable, very positive. But again, it was only three practices.”
Ohio State accomplished a lot in those three workouts, but it wasn’t nearly as much as expected during the normal 15-practice spring. While the four young, talented receivers were vying for playing time, new leaders were set to emerge. Gone are six wide receivers from the room in the last two years.
In as leaders are senior Jaylen Harris, superstar rising junior Chris Olave and second-year sensation Garrett Wilson, who will be tasked with helping the young wide receivers in their progression. Olave and Wilson both know how to win early and earn playing time. Wilson’s rise was expected. Olave’s wasn’t as easy to see coming.
“Chris is a coach’s dream,” Hartline said. “At the end of the day, I’m not sure if anybody cares as much as him about himself, his brothers, his teammates, his peers. He’s a great guy to coach. But yeah, [the final play of the Fiesta Bowl] hit him a different way. I think it has a chance to have a ripple effect in his career, he can recalibrate. He already worked really hard, but just to enhance what he thought he was and then be that much better.”
If Olave is recalibrating and taking the next step in his progression and Wilson continues his steps toward becoming a superstar, those two alone could be a problem for opposing secondaries. Mix in the four talented freshman and a Heisman Trophy-candidate quarterback, and the Ohio State passing game could be a scary sight.
“The mindset was do better than our peers and do better than our opponents,” Hartline said. “It’s still a myself versus myself mentality. We’re just trying to adjust, and those who adjust the best, whether it be on the field or off the field, typically are the more successful people. That’s kind of the approach we’ve taken. Ideally, we’d love to be together.”
Ohio State’s young talent has plenty to learn. After arriving in January, the quartet was able to train in the weight room for two months and sit in on meetings. It made it through three practices and began to translate what it learned in the meeting room onto the football field, from verbiage and signals to the speed of the game and taking tips from developed veterans within the wide receivers unit.
Then it was all cut short. No mistakes can be made to learn from if there are no practices. But what Hartline thinks was missing the most was far more important than route-running and development.
“The one thing I wanted to see is how everybody mesh together,” he said. “I really wanted to have the room forming that bond as a group and developing our new identity and who’s going to step up and lead from the inside out. Those are the kinds of things we miss.
“The football side of things, I feel like we’ll be OK. We have a lot of smart guys in that room and a lot of guys that care. But the culture and the brotherhood and the molding of the room is the thing I think is the biggest loss.”