Wanting More than Average at Wide Receiver

By Vico on June 6, 2014 at 1:00 pm

"We don't want to coach 'average'. I don't want to be around you. Why be around 'average'?"

These three sentences were the Ohio State fan's first real introduction to the Urban Meyer era at Ohio State. They were broadcast on ESPN's All-Access feature in the lead-up to Meyer's debut season, an undefeated campaign in 2012.

These words may also define Urban Meyer's tenure at Ohio State. The simplicity of the words chosen and their brute honesty capture both the baseline expectations for Ohio State football and the frustration with the team (and offense, in particular) at the tail-end of the Tressel era.

However well these words resonate with the Ohio State fan and complement a 24-2 start to Urban Meyer's tenure, they belie the production of Urban Meyer's pet position of wide receiver. Wide receiver play has been average at best since Dane Sanzenbacher and Devier Posey combined for 1,796 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns in 2010. Ohio State fans will hope to see that "touch of greatness" at the position in 2014 to which Meyer alluded in that now famous post-practice speech.

Understanding "average" can be difficult. Metrics exist to operationalize the concept of "average" but they may be misleading. For example, Dane Sanzenbacher and Devier Posey had 948 yards and 848 receiving yards respectively in 2010 though the accumulation of yards is more tractable in what was mostly a base I-formation offense for Jim Tressel. An offense featuring multiple wide receivers can still accumulate similar receiving yard totals (i.e. 203 yards per game in 2013 to 228 yards per game in 2010), though these receptions will be diffuse across multiple wide receivers. That Ohio State got far more production from Jeff Heuerman at tight end in 2013 than any of the tight ends in 2010 complicates a swift statistical comparison.

Further issues of overall quarterback play and offensive philosophy may work to the detriment of the wide receivers' statistical output. Ohio State football, then and now, is predicated on the run. Braxton Miller's play under center was variable down the stretch.

If "average" is a qualitative judgment for this purpose, I maintain it is a fair assessment of the wide receivers in Meyer's first two seasons at Ohio State. No one has done better than Corey Brown's back-to-back All-Big Ten Coaches' Second Team selections in 2012 and 2013. Brown had 771 receiving yards in 2013 and ten touchdowns in his senior season before going undrafted in last month's NFL Draft. The best of an average bunch last year graduated, leaving behind a bunch that, right now, is average at best.

This is not to cast shade on Ohio State's returners. Each player has some nice properties. Devin Smith is a serviceable deep threat. Evan Spencer is an unselfish player who does not get enough credit for being a great blocking wide receiver. Excellent wide receiver blocking springs big plays for Ohio State's running game.

However, Ohio State fans want more than "serviceable" for a deep threat lest we find more synonyms for "average" in our describing wide receivers. Smith has several bad habits after the catch, limitations in the short to intermediate passing game, and his hands have been inconsistent. Spencer is a great blocker on the perimeter though does not accumulate yards. He does not get open much and his contributions are mostly in the short passing game. His ceiling may not be much higher than that even if his role is important. All told, we may have already observed the ceiling for both Smith and Spencer. Both will be entering their senior seasons in 2014.

This evaluation does not speak ill of them, just that they are okay. They're "average".

Entering his third year as head coach, Meyer's remedy for "average" seems to be a youth movement. Few positions (namely defensive line and linebacker) have received more attention on the recruiting trail under Meyer than wide receiver. This is curious because, unlike linebacker, the emphasis on recruiting at wide receiver is disproportionate to the quality of play at the position and the eligibility of the players at the position. Ohio State recruited wide receiver hard in 2013 and 2014 despite having known commodities with years of eligibility remaining, "average" as they may be.

However, a youth movement we are seeing now brings as much as uncertainty as it does prospects of past excellence at the position observed in the 1990s. Dontre Wilson is now a wide receiver after debuting as a hybrid-back as a true freshman last year. Players like Noah Brown, Parris Campbell, James Clark, Johnnie Dixon, Jalin Marshall, Terry McLaurin, and Curtis Samuel all bring promise to the position. However, All-American-caliber performances are rare for freshmen. These players can improve the quality of the position, but only by so much in the short term.

More interesting than the freshmen are the older options. Corey Smith redshirted last season but has two years of JUCO experience under his belt. His last JUCO season was at one of the best community college programs in the country in a state well-regarded as a hotbed of JUCO football. He even earned a scholarship offer from Alabama for his potential.

The players about whom Ohio State fans may be the most curious are Michael Thomas and Jeff Greene. Thomas was right to bemoan how average Ohio State's wide receiver corp was last year (in his own peculiar way). However, his redshirt last season suggests he could have done little to improve that position in 2013. He had a great spring in anticipation of (hopefully) a break-out year as a redshirt sophomore.

Jeff Greene is a walk-on transfer from Georgia Tech who sat out last season. Not much has been said of him when compared to Thomas, but his size could be an asset. At 6-5, he has already demonstrated an ability to be a pest on special teams.

Still, the promise is for him at split end, where his size makes him unique among our current options. Given what Ohio State's coaches told Noah Brown on the recruiting trail, an emphasis on size at split end may be a new approach to improving "average" at the wide receiver position.

Whatever the remedy, Ohio State fans will hope it's a quick fix. Ohio State football has long conceded the mantle of "Wide Receiver U" to programs like Clemson or Southern California. Fans are hoping to reclaim it. Echoing Meyer's famous post-practice speech shown on ESPN's All-Access, if there is a touch of greatness in these wide receivers to remind us of players like David Boston, Cris Carter, Joey Galloway, and Terry Glenn (among many others of recent lore), how cool would that be to reclaim that mantle as a destination for wide receiver play? Its time has come.

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