One glance at the wide receiver depth chart produces a couple familiar names and some, “I’ve heard of that guy, he could be good.” Devin Smith and Evan Spencer are known commodities – the seniors have a combined 2,000 yards and 22 touchdowns – but the Michael Thomases, Corey Smiths, James Clarks and Jeff Greenes remain mysterious and enchanting.
Quarterback Braxton Miller’s passing produced schizophrenic results in 2013, with the latter part of the season giving way to undesired outcomes. Veteran receiver Philly Brown and a wealth of production exits, but promising returns enter the picture full-time.
“Because we redshirted so many players this past year, there wasn’t an opportunity to just redshirt them and let them have a year to develop,” wide receivers coach Zach Smith said about Thomas and Corey Smith. “They were preparing to play because one injury and they’re in. So they got the benefit of preparing like they were playing, but they didn’t waste a year. The strides they made this past fall, I was very pleased. They made phenomenal strides.”
An injury-free Miller has reportedly done the same in summer workouts. Head coach Urban Meyer recently said Miller was “90 percent” healthy, while insiders have lauded the leadership he’s shown with receivers and eagerness to establish cohesion.
“A lot of these guys, like Devin and Evan Spencer, have been with Braxton for three years and it’s not a bad thing to develop the same rapport and chemistry with a guy that may be the backup because you don’t know when that guy is not the backup,” Zach Smith said. “At any time, he could be the guy in the game and you hope they have a report like we had with Kenny [Guiton] last year.”
The 2013 offense was of the record-setting variety. Much of that was due to an overpowering offensive line and equally powerful running back named Carlos Hyde. With a new line and new crop of running backs, Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman could prefer to spread the wealth through the air, though their stated goal is 55-45 in favor of rushing plays.
Miller tweeted last month that the Buckeyes have “a lot of weapons/talent that’s surrounding me on offense this year! Will be scary and fun‼” Meyer acknowledged in the spring that the perimeter game would be more apparent. He described the 2014 offense as a “different taste.”
Thomas is a big piece of Miller’s passing confidence. The duo traveled together to visit George Whitfield and have developed a friendship and on-field rapport dating to Thomas’s first season. It’s just never shown up in a game. The spring phenom has not yet turned the March and April heroics to another season – fall.
Thomas caught three passes for 22 yards in 2012 before redshirting in 2013. There’s belief his role could change entirely in 2014, into a go-to guy type of situation.
“My goal is to have every guy be a go-to guy,” Zach Smith said. “There’s different ways to try and take a guy out of a game. 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.”
Corey Smith, a JUCO transfer, and Jeff Greene, a transfer from Georgia Tech, have yet to play in a game for the Buckeyes – Smith redshirted and Greene was held out due to NCAA transfer rules. But they’re ready, not to play but to make an impact for the Buckeyes.
Smith, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound speedster, gives Miller a receiver who’s specialty is getting the crowd on its feet after catching the football. He could develop into a deep threat or pile on the YAC (yards after catch). Those skills were exhibited in the spring game, when Smith finished with 72 yards receiving and four rushing yards.
After coaching him through a redshirt season, Zach Smith believes Corey Smith progressed just as much without playing a game.
“He came in and was not anywhere close to being ready to play,” Zach Smith said of the Akron native. “By the end of the year, he probably could have been playing. But at that point it was too late and you’re not going to waste a year on a kid with only two years left.”
Instead, Smith retains his final two seasons of eligibility.
“I'm really excited about him in the fall, as long as he continues down the path that he's on,” Zach Smith said. “He’ll provide a lot of competition and depth. Hopefully, he’ll be able to go and compete for a spot.”
Greene remains the wildcard. At 6-foot-5, he’s a vertical threat downfield that Ohio State hasn’t had for a decade. Every time he lines up, he’ll have a significant height advantage over the opposing defensive back. And he’s primed to win.
How much so? Enough that he left a scholarship at Georgia Tech to walk-on at Ohio State.
“I was just trying to get to Ohio,” Greene said.
He led the Yellow Jackets with 18 receptions for 284 yards with two touchdowns.
“We don't have a lot of long, tall, physical receivers like he is,” Zach Smith said. “The development when a kid first gets here, that first calendar year is night and day.”
One could say it’s likely Miller’s passing ability is night and day when compared to last season. After three years as a starter and two under the guidance of Meyer and Herman, Miller’s is set up to be pleasing for Ohio State. He’s wired to succeed and his NFL prospects are at stake.
Helping him along the way will be little-used receivers poised for a breakout and keen on providing a lift to the passing game.
“I am very excited about our group,” Zach Smith said.