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Gophers football faces a tall task of slowing down Ohio State’s talented wide receivers

The Buckeyes’ wide receiver room headlined by Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson has the potential to be historically good.
Head coach P.J. Fleck talks to the team on April 13, 2019 in the indoor football practice facility in Athletes Village.
Image by Tony Saunders
Head coach P.J. Fleck talks to the team on April 13, 2019 in the indoor football practice facility in Athlete’s Village.

Gophers football officially kicks off its 2021 campaign Thursday, as it hosts the No. 4 ranked Buckeyes of Ohio State and their remarkably talented group of wide receivers.

Ohio State has been the class of the Big Ten for quite some time, most recently winning each of the last four conference championship titles.

For most programs, replacing the Buckeyes’ 11 departing starters – which includes promising NFL players, such as the 2020 Big Ten Griese-Brees Quarterback of the Year in Justin Fields, running back Trey Sermon and All-Big Ten offensive lineman Wyatt Davis – from last season’s national runner-up squad would be quite the obstacle, but for Ohio State it has become second nature.

The mass exodus of offensive talent has not turned many away from choosing Ohio State to repeat as Big Ten Champions. The main reason being its unbelievable amount of talent at the wide receiver position.

2020 First Team All-Big Ten senior wide receiver Chris Olave shocked many by forgoing the NFL Draft and opting to return to Columbus, Ohio for another season donning scarlet and grey.

Olave will compete alongside another 2020 First Team All-Big Ten wide receiver in junior Garrett Wilson to make one of the best wide receiver duos that college football has ever seen. Olave was named as an preseason AP first-team All-American while Wilson was named to the second-team.

“They [Ohio State] are very very talented, this wide receiver core they have might be the best wide receiver core I have ever seen in one football team,” Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck said.

Last season in Ohio State’s route to the National Championship game, Olave totaled 729 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on only 50 catches. Wilson was not far behind with 723 receiving yards and six touchdowns with 43 receptions on the season. The duo’s 194.5 combined receiving yards per contest ranked No. 1 nationally amongst pass-catching duos in college football.

ESPN’s NFL Draft analyst Todd McShay ranks Olave as the 10th best NFL Draft prospect heading into this season. His natural route-running and elite athleticism makes him one of the toughest players to game plan against in college football.

“Olave, he’s smooth and fluid, he’s got incredible instincts, he plays bigger than he is,” Fleck said. “He’s got incredible short area quickness, he can play inside, he can play outside, he can go up and over you, but then he can also play inside and do a great job working the middle crosses and the deep overs.”

Garrett Wilson finds himself in a similar ranking on McShay’s list as the No. 14 ranked 2022 NFL Draft prospect. Many see Wilson as the second fiddle to Olave, but there are some that think otherwise, such as popular football news site Pro Football Focus which ranks him No. 8 on its NFL Draft prospect list, 10 spots ahead of Olave.

The talent doesn’t end at Olave and Wilson. 2020 five-star recruits Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming both have the level of talent to be a No. 1 option at most programs. True-freshman four-star prospect Marvin Harrison Jr. (son of NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Marvin Harrison) could be a major contributor on most teams, but he will likely struggle to find the field for the Buckeyes.

While a team can have all of the wide receiver talent in the world, they need a quarterback to throw them the football. Redshirt-freshman C.J. Stroud is expected to make his first collegiate start at quarterback against the Gophers.

Stroud, standing at 6-feet-3-inches entered Columbus, Ohio with a plethora of accolades. As a top-50 nationally ranked recruit he was expected to be next in line at quarterback for the Buckeyes, and his youth may also be an advantage for his offense. It is sometimes challenging for a team to prepare for a player that has had very little film to show at the division one level.

“I think he’s very talented, it speaks to the offers he had coming out of high school,” Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said. “You have to expect the unexpected, but he definitely has a lot of talent.”

The Gophers will be lasered in on slowing down Ohio State’s prolific passing attack and their game plan will start with their cornerback position. Redshirt senior Coney Durr will be Minnesota’s unquestioned leader at the position, but senior’s Terrell Smith and Phillip Howard will likely lead a rotation with freshmen, Miles Fleming and Justin Walley to round out the position group.

“I think the guys who have been repping all training camp, have all acquitted themselves very well,” Rossi said. “I have been pleased with that whole group and how they’ve worked.”

In order to pull off the upset Thursday night, there is no question that the Gophers will need to do much more than slow down Ohio State’s wide receivers. The Buckeyes are the No. 4 ranked team in the country for a reason, that has a lot to do with the program that they’ve built and the talent that they’ve added throughout the entire roster.

“They’re a team that reloads, they don’t rebuild, [they have] very talented guys that are coming in and playing, at every position they have depth, they have experience, they have guys that are really talented,” Fleck said. “They’re a really good football team, I think everybody knows that.”

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