One of the best battles in fall camp was not within one position group for a starting spot but it was between two position groups battling for bragging rights. The deep and talented groups of wide receivers and defensive backs went one-on-one for two weeks and undoubtedly made each other better.
The Buckeyes are forced to replace three of their top receivers from 2018 but assistant coach Brian Hartline has the luxury of looking into a deep receiver room for options. The Buckeyes ranked second nationally in 2018 in total offense and passing yards. They have also led the nation over the past two seasons with 90 touchdown receptions. While the quarterbacks get a lot of praise for these stats, there are two parts to a touchdown grab and the Buckeyes have a talented group to take care of the latter part.
The receiving corps will be led this fall by a pair of fifth-year senior captains in K.J. Hill and C.J. Saunders. Hill has caught a pass in 34 consecutive games and is just 48 receptions shy of breaking David Boston’s school record of 191 career catches. Saunders, who initially walked on to the team in 2017 as a defensive back, has played in 23 games and has 27 receptions and one touchdown.
Senior Binjimen Victor is one of the team’s most experienced receivers and he’s joined by fellow senior Austin Mack who is returning from a foot injury that sidelined him for the second half of 2018. The junior wideouts include a pair of walk-ons in Brock Davin and Chris Brooker. Booker starred on the OSU Club Football team last season and was named a first-team All-American by the National Club Football Association.
Ellijah Gardiner and Jaylen Harris are both third-year sophomores and will both be in the mix this year. Fellow sophomore Chris Olave is coming off a strong finish to the 2018 season, catching 10 passes over the final five games including a pair of TD grabs vs. that team up north. Austin Kutscher and Sam Wiglusz are a pair of walk-ons who will provide much-needed depth and versatility.
The freshmen receiving group includes redshirts Jaylen Gill and Xavier Johnson as well as heralded true-freshmen Jameson Williams and Garrett Wilson.
Noting the Wide Receivers
Brian Hartline on the receivers:
On the development through fall camp…
“It’s been amazing to see the maturation from the beginning of camp through the end both from a leadership standpoint to a growth standpoint. All of those things are happening. It’s been good to see.”
On what he’s seen from his group this fall…
“The continual growth that we’ve talked about. We don’t focus on getting to the end point in one day. We understand it’s going to take time. Every day is a checkpoint and it’s not the end of a race. And frankly, you’re never really at the end of the race. We understand that we can’t look the same week one as we do in week 12. I feel like we’re doing a really good job. But we’re only as good as our last practice or our last game so we’re excited to keep going.”
On if this year can compare with what last year’s group accomplished…
“Every year we tend to get caught up in the past. Of course the past is probably better than maybe it was and the grass is always greener. But we’re trying to live in the present and talking about the present, can we be better than last year? I don’t know. We’re going to be a different group. That’s for sure. But being different doesn’t mean that it’s going to be better or worse. It’s going to be a different approach with different challenges. We have a mindset of we’re going to put our own stamp on 2019.”
On going against a talented group of defensive backs every day in practice…
“Oh that’s huge. That’s probably been understated. The DBs we have on this football are some of the best in the nation, definitely as a group at least. I can’t go person by person but as a group, they are elite and have gone to a whole other level. I’m really excited to see them play here in two weeks.”
On C.J. Saunders…
“He’s a phenomenal young man. The way he started, and seeing where he was at. Being from Dublin and taking the opportunity and turning it into a scholarship and then into a captain. That’s pretty unprecedented. He adds great depth to our room. He’s a warrior and a machine. When I need a guy, he’s always the one to step up and I’m very confident when he’s on the field. Now again, he’s like everyone else in that he needs to keep getting better and keep putting it on the field on Saturday and he’ll tell you that. But what a great young man to have in our group.”
Ohio State has been dubbed “DBU” for the recent run of talent that has come out of the program and has produced at the next level. Looking at the current group of defensive backs, that run doesn’t look anywhere close to being over.
On the corners, redshirt-senior Damon Arnette and junior Jeff Okudah are two of the best cover corners in the country. Arnette is a veteran of 40 games and has started on each of the last two Big Ten Championship teams. Okudah has played in all 27 games over his first two seasons as a Buckeye and has career totals of 53 tackles, nine passes defended and two forced fumbles. Fellow juniors on the defensive corners are Amir Riep, Darryl Sinclair and Marcus Williamson.
The underclassmen group is led by sophomores Shaun Wade and Sevyn Banks. Wade played in all 14 games last season and led the team with three interceptions. Banks saw action in five games as a true freshman in 2018 and looks poised for a big sophomore campaign. They are joined by sophomores Cameron Brown, Lloyd McFarquhar and freshman Tyreke Johnson.
Two-time team captain Jordan Fuller will lead a diverse group of safeties. The senior from Old Tappen, N.J., led the team in 2018 with 81 tackles and was second on the team in tackles in 2017. He has started every game over the last two Big Ten championship seasons.
Fuller is joined in the back by juniors Jahsen Wint, Isaiah Pryor, Brendon White and Kevin Dever. White exploded onto the scene last year, notching five or more tackles in each of the final five games, including a career-high 13 vs. Nebraska. Pryor has 27 games of experience over his first two seasons including nine starts while Wint appeared in 13 games last season and made 26 stops.
Also in the group of safeties are sophomores Ryan Batsch and Joshua Proctor as well as redshirt-freshman Marcus Hooker, Owen Fankhauser and true-freshman Bryson Shaw.
Noting the Defensive Backs
Jeff Hafley on the defensive backs:
On the state of the unit after camp…
“The guys are working hard. I think they’ve had a good camp. They are gaining confidence, which to me, is the most important thing. I want those guys to play confident. I want them to have fun. Because on game day, you just have to go play. I think they are getting close. The confidence is growing.”
On the key to forcing turnovers…
“Our guys know what they’re doing. They play with good technique and fundamentals. And then they’re confident. They are finishing and finishing violently. They’re not afraid to try and go make a play. That’s what practice is for and what I try to talk to them about. It’s fun to see them doing that. If they make a mistake, then we’ll fix it. But I want them to be fearless. And I want that to be their mindset. Because when you do that, hopefully good things will happen.”
On what makes Jeff Okudah so special…
“I think it’s his work ethic. He’s an exceptional athlete. He’s got size, length, speed and great feet. He loves football and practices hard every day. What separates him from other people is his mindset. And that’s what the great ones have.”
On his adjustment in his first year…
“This is probably the most fun I have ever had coaching and it’s because how hard these guys are working and how hard they practice. But truthfully, we want our guys to play fast and we want them to know what they’re doing. So I’ve been learning too. Sometimes, because of how hard they are working, I feel like I’ve given them too much information. Sometimes I ask an assistant if what I said went over their head. So it’s a learning process for all of us but I’m having fun.”