An elite passing game was the one constant in Ohio State's 2021 football season.
Saturday's Rose Bowl will serve as a preview of the new look it will have in 2022. With Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson deciding not to play against Utah to protect against an injury that could affect their NFL future, the Buckeyes will turn to their younger receivers.
Sophomore Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who leads Ohio State in catches (80) and receiving yards (1,259), will remain in the slot. But redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud's outside receivers will be sophomore Julian Fleming and true freshman Marvin Harrison Jr. Another true freshman, Emeka Egbuka, played behind Smith-Njigba in the slot but is expected to play a larger role Saturday.
The absence of players the caliber of Olave and Wilson, who are projected to be first-round picks, would be devastating to many teams. Ohio State simply views it as a passing of the torch.
Stroud described himself as "super-confident" that the young receivers will be up to the task.
"They've been anxious all year to play," Stroud said Wednesday. "This is their opportunity to go out there and prove what they can do. I'm definitely excited for them to go out there and have some fun."
Fleming was the top-ranked wide receiver nationally in the 2020 recruiting class. Injuries, first to a shoulder and more recently to a hamstring, have slowed his progress. Fleming has only seven catches for 51 yards and one touchdown this season. He is now presumed to be healthy.
The son of the Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver, the 6-foot-3 Harrison impressed as soon as he arrived on campus. Egbuka, a five-star recruit, has flashed his ability, mainly on kickoff returns.
"Julian is real physical, very fast, very athletic, very strong," Smith-Njigba said. "Marvin Harrison, he's got great feet. He's a great route runner, great hands. He's got some size on him. Emeka, he's just very explosive, a little bit like myself. Great routes, great hands."
Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said Harrison has practiced as well as any Buckeye receiver the past five or six weeks.
"It's ridiculous how well he's practiced," Wilson said. "But it's one thing (to excel) during practice. Now take it from the driving range to the golf course. Now take it to the Rose Bowl. Take it against a quality defensive football team.
"But he has been off the charts in practice in his details. He's very, very mature."
Rose Bowl could help Ohio State football in 2022
Whatever happens Saturday, Wilson believes the experience will pay off in 2022.
"To have that opportunity this year as opposed to next year probably gives you a little bit more self-assuredness, or maybe also shows you where you're still lacking," he said. "Sometimes even in practice, as good as it looks, you can still be a little bit off. So to go through some of those growing pains, even though it's a huge game and a must-win game, it's still going to be a great opportunity for those (players) as we springboard into 2022."
The young receivers aren't the only ones with motivation. Smith-Njigba looks forward to assuming a leadership role after learning under Olave and Wilson.
"I definitely I always wanted to be in this position, so it's just great that it's happening," Smith-Njigba said. "I appreciate Chris and Garrett for allowing me to follow them and them taking me in the right direction."
Stroud is looking forward to getting his feet wet with the receivers he'll target next year. He views the game as a bridge from 2021 to 2022.
"I think that if we play well, that will be a big-time win, and that will jump-start you into the next year," he said. "You don't want to go into the next year with two bad tastes in your mouth."
That's a reference, of course, to Ohio State's 42-27 loss to Michigan. Stroud entered that game as perhaps the Heisman Trophy front-runner. Though Stroud played well against the Wolverines, the defeat and the inability to put an exclamation point on the season with a Big Ten championship game caused him to fall to fourth in Heisman voting.
"I wouldn't say I'm disappointed," Stroud said. "I'm happy to even be a Heisman finalist. But I don't think it was fair. I don't think that was the truth. But it's not my job to critique myself or critique others. I'm just supposed to play. But I do have a voice, and I will speak my voice. I think that's just making the game fun."
Stroud said that Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, a fellow Southern Californian and close friend, deserved to win the Heisman. But it's clear Stroud was displeased with not finishing higher.
"Who just wants to see somebody take fourth place and be all happy with it?" he said. "I've never been that type of player. I'm a competitor, so I'm not just gonna take that and be all jolly and happy with it. Yeah, it'll drive me for the rest of my life, probably."