Urban Meyer wanted to identify playmakers during the spring. Mission Accomplished. But – there’s always a but – the order of operations at wide receiver remains unknown. The numbers exist, just not the separation coaches desired.
Devin Smith and Dontre Wilson are expected to make the biggest impact. Only Smith played in the spring game and he didn’t have a single catch, which didn’t exactly sit well with head coach Urban Meyer. In a season that’s ripe for a surge in the passing game, speed and stretching defenses was not evident in the spring game
“We’re not where we need to be,” Meyer said. “I think we’re better than we were two years ago, and I’m hoping we’re a notch better than we were last year. We have a ways to go.
“It better be one of our strengths.”
While Wilson is the flashy one with speed and elusiveness, Smith has experience and the ability to make catches with a high degree of difficulty look easy. In three seasons at Ohio State, Smith and Braxton Miller have teamed up on several crucial pass plays. If it’s thrown in Smith’s direction, chances are it will be a completion.
An issue in the spring game – if you can call it that – was the improved secondary. Were the cornerbacks shadowing the wide receivers, causing quarterbacks to look another direction? Or is there an underlying problem with the wideouts? Meyer spoke in positive tones about the improved secondary and gave a mixed message on the receivers.
“I can’t name you one [wide receiver] that’s going to start,” Meyer said, “ which is concerning. But it’s comforting to know I can name about six that have the ability. Those would be Devin Smith, Johnnie Dixon, Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall, before he got hurt he was having a great spring, Dontre Wilson and Evan Spencer. We have some depth there.”
To not name Smith a starter ahead of his senior season is clearly a message. And it’s not too subtle. Meyer and wide receivers coach Zach Smith would like to see their top returning receiver take another step in his career progression.
Smith had 44 receptions for 660 yards with eight touchdowns last year. All three numbers were career bests. But Smith was invisible the final month of the season. In the final five games, he recorded six catches for 118 yards with two touchdowns. Smith only had three receptions for 16 yards in the Buckeyes’ losses to Michigan State and Clemson.
Becoming more dependable means becoming more consistent.
“We’re moving Devin around a little bit,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “That might help him in his development and allow him to utilize what he does best.”
Bumps and bruises contributed to Smith’s decline in production toward the end of the season, he said. In the first nine games, Smith tallied 38 receptions for more than 500 yards and six touchdowns. The injuries meant fewer plays in practice, which compounded itself in games.
“He’s great when things are great, and when things are hard that’s when he needs to shine,” Zach Smith said. “He’s been inconsistent in that.”
But Zach Smith said that changed during the spring. To better challenge him, Devin Smith often found himself lined up across from the best cornerback Ohio State has to offer – Doran Grant. Going head-to-head against superior corners has sometimes left Smith baffled and looking lost.
The confidence and temperament of being a great player is part of Smith’s offseason work. He’s learning to win matchups over top-tier cornerbacks and ignoring misfortune.
“We played a lot of games where he was faster than the guy he lined up across and that’s a gift and a curse,” Zach Smith said. “You can run by a guy over and over. Eventually, you play a guy you can’t run by and it kind of exposes your flaws. That’s what we’ve harped on since the season ended. He’s got to prepare every day to play the best corner in the country so that when he does, he’s ready.”
In a career that’s included more highlight-reel plays than some can remember, Devin Smith is poised to create more memories. Part of being a great player centers on being a good teammate. Smith is taking over the Philly Brown role of being first to the facility and last to leave. There’s also tutoring underclassmen.
Summer months will be spent with Miller. Even though the duo’s made noise for three years, cohesion only comes from continually working together. It’s been three months since Smith last caught a pass from Miller.
June, July and August won’t be spent at the beach. The surface of choice will be FieldTurf at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
“I just have to make sure I take care of my body every single day and make the plays that I can, act like practice is a game,” Smith said. “I think if I can do that here and perfect that, it’ll carry over to the season.”