Down the stretch of the 2013 season, Ohio State's wide receivers vanished like a sack of cocaine at Carl Pelini's Christmas party.
When Michigan State's secondary declared the 2013 Big Ten Championship game a "no fly zone," Philly Brown took to Twitter to inform the Spartans,"We fly whenever we please ✈." The Ohio State senior was held to a paltry five catches for 53 yards (albeit one for a touchdown). The second most productive wide receiver was Devin Smith, who amassed one catch for 11 yards.
I built paper airplanes in kindergarten that flew better than that.
Philly did produce against Clemson, however. He didn't catch a touchdown, but he did snare eight passes for 116 yards... muffed punt be damned. The problem was Ohio State's second most productive wide receiver was Devin Smith, who had two catches for five yards.
That production won't get it done at Valdosta State, let alone Ohio State, and it's was a continuation of a recent, troubling trend for the Buckeyes: average wide receiver play.
This didn't used to be a problem. The 2005 Buckeyes lined up a receiving corps of Santonio Holmes, Theodore "Ballgame" Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez. That's three guys who would eventually be taken in the first round of the NFL draft. Unfortunately that was nine years ago this fall.
Since then, it's been a steady trek downhill. Despite Eric Mangini's (assumed) 72-hour methamphetamine bender that resulted in Brian Robiskie being taken in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft, and Brian Hartline miraculously cobbling together a venerable NFL career after being taken in the fourth round of the same draft, there hasn't been much to write home about.
DeVier Posey's promising career was railroaded by poor decisions, dumb associations and draconian NCAA policies.
Duron Carter, another highly-touted prospect, was too busy partying and playing XBox 360 to ever be troubled with football practice. (Not that I blame him.)
And sure, Dane Sanzenbacher had his moments, but it's a problem when the 5'10" Sanzenbacher is the most memorable wide receiver at Ohio State in recent memory.
"You don’t want to take away from what guys like Devin Smith and Evan Spencer did for us this past year or the year before, but at the end of the day we got better and were a better unit, but we’re still not where we need to be. There’s not a, ‘Behind Devin’ or ‘In front of Devin.’ I’ve got a group of guys that are fighting for spots -- Devin included. There’s not a starter in my room.”
The wide receivers' competition will be one of the more fascinating stories to watch going into spring and fall camp. There's a lot of new talent nipping at the heels of the program's elder statesmen, including Curtis Samuel, Johnnie Dixon, Jalin Marshall, Corey Smith and 6'5" Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Greene.
“The way that the younger guys developed by the end of the year, I think it’s going to be a dogfight to see who’s gonna start and who’s gonna get the ball.”– Zach Smith
My pick for a breakout year, however, is Cardale Jones' former Fork Union Military Academy roommate, Mike Thomas.
Thomas spent a year in prep school after an industrious high school senior season in 2010 when he led the state of California with 85 catches for 1,656 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Thus far at Ohio State, his accolades include dominating the 2012 Spring Game with 12 catches for 131 yards (he finished the 2012 season with three catches). After a "mere" seven catches for 79 yards (and a four-yard touchdown grab) in the 2013 Spring Game, he was surprisingly red-shirted.
Thomas was subsequently forgotten by most in Columbus until shortly after the loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Fed up, Thomas took to Twitter to vent his frustrations [sic'd]:
"there was 2 people on the field that combined for 200+ plays past 2 games only brought to the table 3 catches 16 yrds ... Is it throwing people under the bus? Or is it telling it how it is? You watch tv you see the same stuff... You just sugar coat it. they are considered starters at Ohio State!"
It was a teachable moment for Thomas, but at the end of the day, he was beat out by the guys he lambasted.
But that's okay, because failure drives successful people. In fact, it's how people respond to their failures that separates average people from the likes of Michael Jordan or Bill Gates.
Not that Thomas will ever become the iconic athlete of his generation or a computer tycoon, but this is the season we'll see if he shares some of their DNA.
Judging by this Instagram video (warning: football language), he's on the right track:
The last time I saw an Ohio State wide receiver make a play like that — high-pointing a ball and owning a helpless defensive back — was Anthony Gonzalez against that borderline-intramural football team up north in 2005. And yes, for those scoring at home, Mike's Instagram (and Twitter) handle is "cantguardmike."
Is it arrogant? You're damn straight it is. That's the wide receiver position: arrogance and bravado. Still having nightmares featuring Clemson's Sammy Watkins? He said he plans to dominate the NFL combine. I'll take that over nice guys like Brian Robiskie every day of the week.
Philly Brown had bravado, but at times it wrote checks his talent couldn't cash. Mike Thomas' talent gives him overdraft protection. That's the difference in the edge Thomas brings to the table.
And in a recent Twitter Q&A, who do you suppose Braxton Miller said he's looking forward to throwing to the most next year?
Suddenly, that instant rapport shown in the 2012 Spring Game doesn't seem so insignificant.
Ultimately, it takes more than just talent and favoritism from the quarterback to see playing time on an Urban Meyer-coached team. Leadership, for one. Not going on Twitter rants is probably up there somewhere too.
Mike Thomas' career is at a cross-roads. The path to the NFL is littered with the corpses of careers filled with untapped potential. But I think Mike Thomas, who came to Columbus via Virginia via the glorious San Fernando Valley, has traveled too far to waste his talents. I think Thomas knows it too.
I could be wrong, but I don't think I am. I think Mike Thomas' selfishness and arrogance is just what the doctor ordered for the Ohio State receiving corps.
Like his uncle Keshawn Johnson once famously decreed: just give him the damn ball.