When Urban Meyer took over the reins of Ohio State's offense, he labeled the wide receiving corps a clown show. Given the unit's pedestrian funk, it was ultimately tough but fair criticism.
Those days, however, are long gone. To Urban and his pupils' credit, both Devin Smith and Evan Spencer are cashing NFL checks right now. But if Ohio State is going to repeat, then Ohio State's championship coach will once again have to go to the developmental well.
Any receiving conversation starts with Michael Thomas, who despite only 821 career yards and zero 100-yard games, is the runaway leader of Zone-6. The San Fernando Valley product took the long route to the summit of the unit room, but all that matters now is that he's here.
"I want to be able to lead and have a voice in the room and make sure we know where we started and continue."– Michael Thomas
The leadership void left by Evan Spencer and Devin Smith is not lost on the man who once roomed with Cardale Jones at the Fork Union Military Academy.
"I wanna be a better leader. We lost two seniors," Thomas said Sunday at Ohio State's media day. "I just want to pick up where we left off. I don’t want there to be like a gap with losing them."
Thomas will lead opponents' scouting reports now, so that will be a new challenge. Yet there is no reason to think Thomas won't continue his steady ascent to the NFL. He is a big-bodied, sure-handed receiver with cyborg-like body control. Oh, and his speed and elusiveness regularly surprises defenders, and he will one day make an NFL GM look wise for drafting him.
Noah Brown, he of the vise grip hands and a catch radius that would shame an international bounty hunter, showed a panache for punishing blocks and flashed his potential in 2014. After a strong spring, Gareon Conley said Brown was "unguardable" during stretches of play in fall camp.
Many had (correctly) penciled in Noah Brown to start opposite of Thomas, but the burly, former four-star prospect out of New Jersey suffered a season-ending leg fracture during Wednesday night's practice.
The truth is Zone-6's Virginia Tech depth chart was already askew.
Corey Smith, the eldest receiver in the room, will miss the season opener due to suspension. Smith's 2014 campaign led to mixed results.
It's never been about the talent with the Akronite but rather miscues both on and off the field. It remains to be seen if missing a nationally-televised season opener is the wakeup Smith needed. One thing is clear, though: Time is running out on the only junior college transfer on the roster.
Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall — two more suspended players who both are expected to play the hybrid — were two experienced options who could've helped break in the talented yet unproven remaining roster in a hostile environment like a night game in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Both are expected to contribute upon their return, but it was Marshall who shined the brightest in 2014. Wilson suffered an injury last year and never made it back to 100%, and there will be plenty of talent wanting those minutes upon his return.
Braxton Miller, ironically enough, is the second-most experienced receiver remaining, and he's never played the position.
There's a trail of pure athletes who, for whatever reason, never made the transition to receiver. No matter how explosive Braxton Miller is, there will be growing pains as he learns the intricacies of the position. (It also remains to be seen how he blocks, since that's a prerequisite for playing receiver at Ohio State.)
Buckeye Nation remains high on Braxton's chances at making the transition, and rightfully so. There won't be a better player in the country once Miller gets ahold of the magic diamond. The best part though is the fact Miller won't need the ball in his hands to become a weapon; putting him into motion will be enough to send a shiver down the opposing defensive coordinator's spine.
Curtis Samuel, a true sophomore, showed great potential (and a love for the spin move) during spot time as a freshman. It takes an elite talent to see time his first year in Columbus, and the sky remains the limit.
In fact, he's such a smooth athlete the coaches refuse to pigeonhole him. Though he meets full time with the receivers, the only thing that seems to be agreed upon about his position is that he'll play, a lot.
|SOPHOMORE||NOAH BROWN (INJURED)|
|REDSHIRT FR.||PARRIS CAMPBELL|
|REDSHIRT FR.||TERRY MCLAURIN|
After that, it's a who's who of talented yet unproven prospects.
Cardale Jones didn't hesitate at OSU's media day when asked who he had tabbed as players who could replace Devin Smith as a deep threat: Johnnie Dixon and Terry McLaurin.
Dixon, like any South Floridian gem pulled from the grasp of in-state schools, came to Columbus with much fan fair. Dixon performed admirably in mop-up duty against Kent State and was on pace to contribute as a freshman before tendonitis robbed him of his season.
As troubling as a teenager suffering from tendonitis was, Dixon stayed healthy enough thus far through fall camp and is in line for playing time. For him, it's just a matter of his body cooperating.
McLaurin's name popped in camp, and the suspension of his comrades has left a void in the depth chart that hasn't been there since the speedster's arrival from Indianapolis last summer.
Dixon and McLaurin won't be able to fill Devin Smith's shoes overnight, but even Devin Smith didn't become Devin Smith overnight. However, the quicker they can start making plays (especially ripping off the defense's top from the slot) the better for the Buckeyes.
Parris Campbell is another intriguing prospect who drew positive reviews from camp, and he was one of the first receivers brought into the inner circle of Braxton Miller's late night receiving practice sessions.
Though this is his second year in the program, Campbell just turned 18. The safe money is on a breakout year in 2016, but Zach Smith (like Urban Meyer) will get the best players on the field.
James Clark is a third-year sophomore who has seen his promising football career derailed by collegiate injuries. At this point, any sort of production from the four-star Floridian burner would be welcomed by the coaching staff and fans alike. It should be noted Zach Smith said Clark had his best camp while at OSU.
Of the #Elite15 contingent that just arrived in Columbus last month, there are two in particular that are poised for playing time.
With the freshmen it begins with Torrance Gibson, a freak athlete/high school QB that elected to play at receiver this year in an effort to see the field (sound familiar?).
Gibson is a "grown-ass man" according to a source close to the program, and a "natural at the position." Like Braxton, there will be intricacies in the position that Gibson won't possess immediately, but the young man is simply too dynamic to leave on the bench. Whether by hook or by crook, Gibson will contribute to this year's team.
K.J. Hill, who was poached from Bert Bielema's sausage-like fingers on National Signing Day, is a smooth and rangy athlete that, unlike Gibson, has already lost his black stripe. Obviously, that means Hill is taking care of a lot more things than just catching and running the football.
If Hill and Gibson can both contribute this season, it will help assuage the loss of Noah Brown because both of them are physical players that can take advantage of smaller cornerbacks and slower linebackers in the red zone.
Alex Stump, a former four-star prospect from Lakewood St. Edward, is another freshman who could provide a red zone mismatch, but the smart money is on a redshirt.
TL;DR: Though the loss of Noah Brown hurts, there are simply too many talented/versatile players waiting in the depths for it to be a major concern. If Ohio State can survive Blacksburg, then there will be weapons abound for the survivor of #QBgeddon by time the postseason comes knocking.
The tight end position suffers a similar leadership void as Zone-6. Gone is Jeff Heuerman, a dependable tight-end who did whatever it took to get his team over the finish line.
Heuerman missed some time in 2014, which gave then-junior Nick Vannett experience on which to draw in defense of Ohio State's eighth championship.
The senior only posted 19 catches and 220 yards in 2014, but he'll be needed as a third-down security blanket, especially at Virginia Tech.
Tight ends coach Tim Hinton, as far back as this spring, didn't seem worried about him.
"He had some great catches last year. He understands seams. We kind of had a little deal where you know man or you know zone and he understands how to handle both. I think he's pretty good at coverage reading."
The former Marion Harding High School coach didn't stop there.
"Nick has some really good strengths in the pass game and what he does in the pass game," Hinton said. "He's really tremendous at perimeter blocking."
It's unlikely Vannett will put up gaudy numbers, but he'll undoubtedly be a factor in most games. If he blocks well and shows an ability for the timely big play, then he could go down as a cult hero at Ohio State.
Should Vannett, like his predecessor, miss any time then attention will turn to former four-star recruit Marcus Baugh.
"He would not be in the depth chart where he is if I didn't believe [Baugh had put his mistakes in the past]," Hinton said at media day. "We want to make sure we're doing everything we can to just, he's maturing, he's doing very, very well.
If Baugh is unable to answer the call, then things get murky. Rashod Berry — an under-the-radar recruit and versatile athlete — and A.J. Alexander are the two men in the unit room. Neither player, however, has lost his black stripe.
TL;DR: Ohio State is in good hands if Nick Vannett stays healthy. If not, the duties will be left to the unproven Marcus Baugh and two true freshmen.