Atlanta — It didn’t take Colbie Davis long to realize that even as a high school freshman, Emeka Egbuka, she was special.
Egbuka had all the skills to start his freshman year, but it was his brain that really stood out.
Davies, the head coach of Steilacoom High School in Steilacoom, Washington, spent a lot of time teaching concepts to his young players. He would explain things like a “five-step throw,” telling the players, “Make sure you break your fifth step at a hard angle.”
It wasn’t enough for young Egbuka. He always needed to know more.
Egbuka would point at Davies and ask him questions like:
“How do you want me to work my release at the line of scrimmage?”
“Do I have enough time with protection to affect my Defender this way or another?”
“If the defense does this, what else can I respond with?”
“These are questions you would never ask another child,” Davies said.
That’s just who Egbuka is. His thirst for knowledge has always been evident as he wants to be perfect on the field.
Even now, as Ohio State’s newest 1,000-yard receiver, Egbuka still picks the brains of whoever he can.
“(Wide receivers) coach (Brian) Hartline sometimes gets mad at me because I ask too many questions,” Igbuka said with a laugh. “It comes back to me wanting to fully understand something because the more I can grasp the concept, the faster I’ll get better at it.”
This constant need to learn more has made Egbuka into the receiver he is now. He can handle anything Ohio State throws at him.
This year Egbuka played 622 shots and ran 230 ways in the slot. He caught 43 passes on 63 targets for 675 yards and seven touchdowns on hole ways.
He also excels on the outside, running 113 routes and catching 23 passes on 34 targets for 364 yards and four touchdowns. He can return kicks and punts and take deliveries out of the field.
There is nothing Egbuka can’t do.
“I would play defense if they asked me,” he said.
As Hartline said, Egbuka is the kind of receiver every coach wants.
He is a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award, given to the nation’s most versatile player. But just acknowledging his versatility isn’t fair to the former top-ranked wide receiver in the class of 2021.
“Some awards have recognized him for his versatility, which is excellent, but as a receiver I feel like he’s been overlooked. We know what he is,” Hartline said. “I know what a good player he is and NFL scouts know a future.”
As Ohio State prepares for top-ranked Georgia in the Peach Bowl on Saturday, Egbuka may be the most important Buckeye non-quarterback. And hardly anyone talks about it.
It was on a different level
Egbuka is a self aware player.
For his first two years of high school, he was primarily an outside receiver. Which is a good idea.
Teams began to double down on his team, offering assists at corner safety or taking him out of play altogether. He wanted to have a bigger impact on the game, so he went to Davies and asked if he could move more.
Egbuka wanted to get into the slot and that opened the conversation about moving him into the background as a wildcat player captain as well.
He wasn’t just an ordinary high school football player who went to his coach with ideas. He gave Davis complex solutions – some of the most important his coach could remember.
“It was on a different level,” Davies said.
Even then, Egbuka was thinking about the future. He knew that playing every position would help him in college and beyond.
“I had a feeling that moving at this age would help me take it to the next level,” said Igbuka.
He was right.
When Hartline recruited Egbuka out of high school, he was impressed with the great prospect’s ability to do it all on the field. Not just because he was putting up the numbers, but because he knew that if Egbuka signed with Ohio State, he’d get a highly intelligent player.
“It was the ability to absorb and execute it all. The thing he had with the grit,” Hartline said.
Six months into his time at the Buckeye, Egbuka was working at every position in the receiving corps. He played a lot of slot receiver last year, but with Jaxon Smith-Njigba preparing for what some assumed could be a potential Heisman campaign, Ohio State worked Egbuka at Z receiver for most of the summer and fall. He’s been too good to leave the field this season.
Then Smith Njegba was injured and things changed.
The conversation soon moved to moving Egbuka all over the place. Depending on formation, opponent, touchdown and distance. Egbuka had to be ready to move anywhere.
And he was.
“Week after week, you try to prepare yourself for whatever situation might come up,” he said.
The reason the transition was so smooth was because of how smart Egbuka was. Coach Ryan Day said Egbuka can handle a lot of information in groups.
Egbuka is credited to the coaching staff. But Hartline says the credit goes to his elite receiver.
“As coaches, we have to recommend it, but the athlete gets the credit because they have to internalize it, apply it, implement it, not the coaches,” Hartline said. “This is a testament to the kind of player he is.”
Forced on a defender from the start
You’d be hard pressed to find someone in Ohio who doesn’t care about Egbuka’s toughness.
“He’s been a warrior all year,” Day said.
“He’s had a lot of therapy because, like I said, it’s physically demanding to play indoors and out, but I think he’s got the talent for that and he’s shown it,” said CJ Stroud.
With that said, Egbuka’s durability is more than just playing through bumps and bruises.
He’s more physical than you might imagine with his 6-foot-1, 205-pound frame. Being connected when it takes delivery in the background. Plays through contact when playing roads too.
This is a mentality created by Egbuka, and you have to switch positions. In the slot, you are required to block more linebackers and safeties in the box. Outside, you still block, but it’s a corner, or you’re tasked with keeping them out of the play.
“It’s a different skill set, but I don’t feel like someone who only plays outside can’t craps or that someone who is in the slot can’t play outside,” Igbuka said. “It’s a skill you have to develop.”
No matter the skill set, Egbuka maintains the same mindset: He wants to impose his will on a defender from the start.
“I’ve always been one of the people trying to assert my dominance in every game and chasing down guys letting them know this isn’t going to be an easy game,” he said. “There are times when you’re going to shake yourself, but it’s about being tough and sucking it up and doing the hard stuff even when you don’t want to.”
This makes him especially valuable to Ohio State because, with his versatility and toughness, the Buckeyes can use him in multiple configurations.
When Ohio State debuted in an I-form early in the season, Egbuka was the receiver in that formation who was asked to block and even made a jet sweep for a touchdown against Toledo while running through two tackles.
Seeing Egbuka grow in this aspect of his game was fun to watch Davies.
“It’s funny to see it being used there and to watch it work,” Davies said. “It’s crazy to watch what he’s doing now at this level to get up from where he was with us.”
Aside from improving Egbuka, it also allows Ohio State to open the game book. The Buckeyes have multiple players in all of their offense. Xavier Johnson is a weapon used at running back and receiving, and although Mitch Rossi is included in the tight end list, he also plays linebacker.
“Having guys who can do multiple things like Emeka is great. The more versatile you can be, the more valuable you are,” Day said.
Egbuka has been valuable as they come this season with 1,220 all-purpose yards.
Despite shooting into the spotlight with roommate Marvin Harrison Jr., Igbuka has kept his poise. Nothing has changed at Egbuka now that it has seen success. Hartline loves that about him.
“You don’t become what you’re meant to become when you become that man. You have to be that man before you are the man,” Hartline said. “Marvin, Emeka and Julian (Fleming) were the man before they became the man. Now you see what happens when they come to battle. “
Consistency is key to success and Egbuka will not change hands with the stakes being higher than usual on Saturday. This is the game he’s been waiting for all year.
He will be willing to do everything he can to get Ohio State back into the national championship.
(Photo: Rick Ossentowski/USA Today)