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Why Ohio State's Brian Hartline leads list of college football's most valuable assistants

"I'm trying to develop them into their own coach, because frankly, I don't trust a lot of the coaches out there," Ohio State receivers coach Brian Hartline said. "I saw firsthand the amount of bad coaching that happens." Joseph Maiorana/USA TODAY Sports

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Brian Hartline ran routes for the scout team at Ohio State in 2016 -- his first year out of football. When not on the field, Hartline was constantly giving pointers to his alma mater's wide receivers.

Head coach Urban Meyer noticed and soon offered Hartline a job. Hartline said no.

Several months later, Meyer again contacted Hartline, who had finished a seven-year NFL career as a receiver with the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns. Hartline wasn't doing much. He lived in town. He liked sports media and did some radio and television, but soon found himself leaning into the criticism too much.

"If you know so much, why don't you try to help?" Hartline asked himself.

He agreed to join the Ohio State staff as a quality control assistant in 2017.

"It was hard to get me back in, but once I did, I fell in love," Hartline, Ohio State's wide receivers coach, told ESPN. "Obviously, I haven't left since."

Five years after walking back into the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, Hartline has become one of the most important assistants in college football, especially among non-playcallers. Current Buckeyes coach Ryan Day has finally made Ohio State a quarterback destination, while Hartline's wide receiver room is regarded as the nation's most talented and will be on display against Wisconsin on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC).

In 2021, that receiver room produced three All-Americans in Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave and Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Wilson and Olave went No. 10 and No. 11 in the 2022 NFL draft, while Jameson Williams, a former Ohio State wideout who transferred to Alabama, went No. 12.

Hartline also has emerged as one of the nation's top recruiters, signing ESPN's No. 1 or No. 2 wide receiver recruit in Wilson (No. 2 in 2019 and No. 17 overall player), Julian Fleming (No. 1 in 2020 and No. 1 overall) and Emeka Egbuka (No. 2 in 2021 and No. 30 overall). Ohio State signed six other ESPN 300 wide receiver recruits in those classes, including current contributors Smith-Njigba and Marvin Harrison Jr. The Buckeyes signed three ESPN 300 receivers in the 2022 class and have three more committed for 2023.

"It's crazy," Fleming told ESPN. "Year after year after year, we're bringing in top and top and top guys. We're never really missing a step, especially with him here."

ESPN spent time with Hartline to explore what has led to his rise and where he could go next, and also looked at five other invaluable assistants -- at Kentucky, BYU, Florida State, Iowa State and Miami.