COLUMBUS, Ohio — Streaking past the home team’s sideline with six minutes remaining in Ohio State’s top-10 matchup at Wisconsin last weekend, Dontre Wilson pinned a 43-yard pass from quarterback J.T. Barrett against his chest, helping set up what would be the game-tying field goal in the Buckeyes’ 30-23 overtime beating of the Badgers.
“Huge catch,” Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said of the play two days later.
It might just go down as the moment that defines the senior wide receiver’s college career.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way — not for one of the first prominent prospects Meyer lured to Columbus in his time at Ohio State, the player whose speed and athleticism was supposed to shift the paradigm of how players in the Buckeyes program were perceived. With a new “Next Percy Harvin” arriving in each Ohio State recruiting class, Wilson was the first and Saturday’s “huge catch” was supposed to be the routine, not the exception.
But thanks in large part to injuries and along with the help of his own self-inflictions, Wilson has yet to live up to the Texas mosquito-sized buzz that accompanied the former 4-star prospect’s arrival from the Lone Star State.
At the midway point of his senior season, Wilson is well on pace for his best year of his career. But with a career-altering injury still lingering, both he and his head coach know he’s yet to — and is unlikely to — truly reach his potential at Ohio State.
“It’s been one of injury,” Meyer said of Wilson’s career. “He’s fighting like crazy. He’s still not 100 percent now.”
Regardless of where the rest of this season goes for both the Buckeyes and Wilson personally, he’ll always have Saturday’s catch.
“It meant a lot,” Wilson says. “When we needed it the most, like Coach Meyer says, I made a play that possibly won the game. Yeah, I’m pretty happy about that.”
It sure beats the play that previously defined his career.
At some point in Ohio State’s season-shifting 49-37 win over Michigan State in 2014, Dontre Wilson broke a bone in his right foot.
It’s tough to tell exactly when — Wilson completed the game — but this much is known: whenever it was that the then-sophomore suffered the injury, it happened before he caught a fourth-quarter, 7-yard touchdown pass.
That’s right. In the game that put the Buckeyes in the driver’s seat in their eventually successful quest for the College Football Playoff championship, Wilson caught a touchdown after having just endured a broken foot.
“Tells you what a tough guy,” Meyer said at the time.
Indeed. But while Wilson returned for a few token snaps in the national title game — which was held in Arlington, Texas, just 30 minutes away from his hometown of DeSoto — he was never the same physically.
Furthermore, the injury added to what was already one of the toughest times in the then-19-year-old’s life.
“I was going through a lot,” Wilson recalled earlier this week. “I was going through some stuff with my mother and I just had my child two days after my injury. But, yeah, I was going through a lot. That was really frustrating.”
It was even more frustrating when taking into account where Wilson stood just a year earlier.
Big man on campus
At Ohio State’s annual media day in 2013, nobody outside of preseason Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller drew a bigger crowd of reporters than Dontre Wilson.
The No. 6 all-purpose back and 70th-ranked player in the 2013 class, Wilson checked off all the boxes of a high-profile recruit.
Originally set to spend his college career at Oregon, he reopened his recruitment when Chip Kelly left for the NFL. A Dallas TV station carried his announcement committing to the Buckeyes two days before national signing day. He put up gaudy numbers against some of the toughest competition in high school football, tallying more than 2,500 yards and 46 touchdowns in his senior season at DeSoto.
He also played a position not previously used at Ohio State. While the running back/wide receiver hybrid role in Meyer’s spread offense is officially labeled simply as H, it’s much better known by its nickname: the Percy Harvin role.
Even before the Buckeyes took the field for fall camp, word began trickling out of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center that Wilson was unlike any other player on the Ohio State roster. Even at Big Ten media days in July, Meyer had to stop himself from setting the bar too high for a player yet to play in his first official college practice.
“We’ve got to slow down on Dontre,” Meyer said with a smile when he realized he was playing into a line of questioning that may have added unnecessary pressure to the true freshman. “We’ve got to slow down.”
Wilson wasn’t used to slowing down, and at times in his freshman campaign his big-play ability was apparent. At 174 pounds, Wilson wasn’t big enough to handle the full workload of a running back and wasn’t refined enough as a route-runner to play receiver, yet he still managed to tally 460 yards from scrimmage (250 rushing, 210 receiving) on 53 touches, score three touchdowns and average 24.9 yards per return as the Buckeyes’ primary kick returner.
He also got a quick introduction to the storied Ohio State-Michigan rivalry.
That was just supposed to be the start — a taste of what was to come as Wilson continued to bulk up and truly take on the Percy Harvin role. In the first nine games of his sophomore season, a now-185-pound Wilson tallied 400 yards (300 receiving, 100 rushing) and three touchdowns while adding punt return duties to his plate.
Then he broke his foot.
Never the same
A second foot surgery followed his cameo in the championship game, and while foot injuries have a habit of lingering, Wilson didn’t help himself much either. His return to the field in 2015 was delayed due to a one-game suspension, which came as a result of a “violation of athletic department policy.” Once back on the field, he proved inefficient, tallying just 63 total yards in six games in a suddenly crowded OSU offense.
Another foot procedure followed during the Buckeyes’ bye week. Wilson missed three games before returning to the OSU lineup but failed to tally another touch all year.
“A foot injury, man, you’re always on your foot. I run routes, I cut all the time. That can be nagging,” Wilson explains now. “That’s probably something I’ll have to deal with for the rest of my life.”
Prior to the final game of his junior campaign, he announced on Twitter he’d be returning to Columbus for his senior season.
hurt to see this selection but its still 1 more game to be played we gone work our ass off 2 get back 2 it i will return for me senior year
— Dontre Wilson (@treydayy_) December 6, 2015
It remains unclear what other options he really had.
Wilson may never reach his potential from a physical standpoint, but special shoes from Nike have helped lessen the stress on his oft-injured foot. Now up to 195 pounds and more capable of taking the between-the-tackles pounding of a traditional tailback, the former Lone Star State star estimates he’s close to 95 percent healthy.
“I want to stay that way,” he says.
He’s no longer “The Next Percy Harvin” — that title has since been applied to OSU H-back Curtis Samuel — and his inability to practice on a consistent basis as a part of his maintenance program has naturally limited his ability to be a part of a full game plan.
Nevertheless, Wilson appears to have saved his best for last in his college career. Through six games, the senior H-back has tallied 307 yards (232 receiving, 75 rushing) and five touchdowns on 11 yards per touch, the latter two of which are already career bests.
He hasn’t been the most explosive player on the Buckeyes’ roster as many originally thought he’d be, but he has been one of the more reliable ones. On an otherwise largely inexperienced and still sometimes inconsistent squad, Wilson ranks second in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns for second-ranked Ohio State.
“I just love his unselfish approach right now and the fact he made a play to help us go win a game,” Meyer said. “He flipped the ball to the official, went back, and almost made another great one to help us. I like where he’s at and he’s a team player that’s doing the best he can.”
In many ways, his big catch against the Badgers served as a microcosm of his time in Columbus.
Earlier in the game, Wilson admittedly hadn’t played well, nearly muffing a punt early in the third quarter with Ohio State trailing Wisconsin by two scores. “Everybody thought I fumbled. I pretty much had it the whole time,” he insists.
By the time the game ended, barely anyone had remembered the near miscue. What did endure, however, was the image of a once-inconsistent playmaker making the unlikeliest of memorable plays.
After the game, Meyer called Wilson to the front of the Buckeyes locker room to address the team.
“I was just telling the team to get better, man. We gotta put that game behind us. That was a pretty tough game,” Wilson said. “I just told them, ‘Keep pushing.'”
It’s a mantra he knows all the too well.