The word inconsistent is defined as “not staying the same throughout.” It’s one term that could be used to describe Braxton Miller’s passing targets. There have been many recipients of his passes, and the group hasn’t always performed at a steady level.
Zach Smith is at the heart of changing that perception – and reality. The third-year wide receivers coach has steadily rebuilt the receiving corps into a strength. When he arrived, Ohio State’s leading receiver from the previous season had 14 receptions. The position as a whole only caught 65 passes.
In Smith’s first season, the leading receiver’s production rose to 60, and it was 63 in 2013. Year 3 could provide a true breakout despite the loss of Philly Brown, the Buckeyes’ leading receiver for three consecutive seasons.
“My goal is to have every guy be a go-to guy,” Smith said. “It can never be an offense based on one or two guys. We’ve got to have four, five, six guys that can consistently perform to our standards, and that’s what we are trying to do.”
The game plan begins with senior Devin Smith, who’s recorded more than 1,000 yards combined and 14 touchdowns the past two seasons. He’s the team’s leading returning receiver and a candidate to be one of the offenses most dynamic players. The clown show days are over. It’s not uncommon to have multiple receivers who can stretch defenses.
“I look back on some of the plays that I’ve made, and I have made some plays that people will remember forever,” Devin Smith said. “Inside me, I still feel like there is more that I need to give, and I’m hoping I can do that my last year.”
Two years ago, playmakers were not in sight. When Meyer uttered his now infamous phrase, the receiver position was in a depression. For 30 years, Ohio State produced several NFL-ready pass-catchers. It all hit a snag as offenses shifted to athletic quarterbacks. But the Buckeyes are reverting to rosters stockpiled with high-end receivers.
“I am very excited about our group,” Zach Smith said. “We are getting there slowly. Right now, there is a lot of competition and the culture is growing. They’re really buying into what we are trying to build in the room.
“We just have to keep taking steps. We’re a long way away. But luckily the season is a long way away. We have to be consistent every day. We need to make plays when plays present themselves, and we need to do it every single time.”
“We have to be the best receiving group in the country. We’re taking steps toward that.”– Zach Smith
Devin Smith and Evan Spencer deliver experience, while Dontre Wilson, Michael Thomas, Johnnie Dixon, Jalin Marshall, Jeff Greene, Corey Smith and James Clark provide the unproven youth. Although there are unknown quantities, the amount of bodies make wide receiver one of the deepest positions on the team.
It presents competition, which is one of spring’s main themes. Offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, running back – scan the field and you’ll probably find a position that’s trying to establish depth and doing so in the name of competition.
“No spot is guaranteed,” Zach Smith said. “No one is a starter because there are a number of guys developing into a great X, a great H, a great Z, whatever. We’ll see who it is. It’s just a matter of time, who comes every single day and who brings the effort and competes.”
Thomas, Marshall, Greene and Corey Smith have created intrigue. There’s only a handful of career receptions between the four players, but that’s done little to hush onlookers who await a return to previous years that featured many deep threats. Then there is Dixon, a freshman from West Palm Beach who makes up for his 5-foot-11 frame with speed, shiftiness and sure hands.
Alabama, Florida State, Auburn, Miami – all the major powers wanted Dixon. But not only did he spurn the SEC, defending national champions and his nearby school, Dixon chose to head a thousand miles north to Columbus.
“Johnnie’s been impressive,” Zach Smith said. “He is a lot like Dontre. He’s a grown man for an 18-year-old. He comes in and handles his business. He handles his business outside of this facility, he handles his business in the classroom. So I’m excited about where he is going to be.
“Now, he is a typical freshman. He’s still learning and still trying to figure everything out. He has the commitment to be great, and he is doing everything we are asking him to do right now. That’s usually a formula for success.”
The cohesion won’t come until summer, though. Every single pass during the months of March and April has come from a backup quarterback. When Miller’s surgically repaired throwing shoulder heals, the process of developing timing will begin in earnest. Devin Smith, Spencer and Thomas are the only receivers who have a rapport with Miller.
“We have to be the best receiving group in the country,” Zach Smith said. “We’re taking steps toward that. That’s been our goal every year because that's what Ohio State deserves. But we haven’t reached that goal. It's my expectation and the group's mentality that we will be that this fall. We have to be.”
Defensive coordinators’ focus won’t just be keyed to Miller. A vibrant running back may have departed. But the Buckeyes are launching a well-rounded offensive attack.