As a high school senior, Austin Mack's public commitment to Ohio State may have taken more time than some expected. Since arriving in Columbus in January, it hasn't taken much time at all for him to make his presence felt at wide receiver.
The departures of Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller have left some serious holes on offense. The trio combined for 117 receptions, over 1,500 yards and 17 scores last season. Players like Johnnie Dixon, Corey Smith, Dontre Wilson and a healthy Noah Brown will all look to help fill the void at wideout.
Austin Mack arrived in January after successful career at Fort Wayne's Bishop Luers High School. In his career, he hauled in 167 passes for over 2,600 yards and 24 scores while adding another 17 touchdowns on the ground. The Army All-American was the No. 2 player in the state of Indiana and the nation's 10-rated wideout, though the Ohio State coaching staff clearly had him much higher on their board.
"He's the best in the country," one source close to the Buckeyes said about Mack. "His intangibles put him over the top."
Mack is now in his fourth month at Ohio State, and the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder already has the look of a Big Ten wideout. Last week, he became the first 2016 freshman to earn the honor of having his black stripe removed. Yes, he has had the advantage of being on campus months before the majority of his classmates will arrive, but it's still quite the accomplishment when you consider that the inaugural stripe removal for the newcomers had previously never happened before August.
Congrats to Austin Mack for being the first to get his black stripe removed!— Urban Meyer (@OSUCoachMeyer) March 31, 2016
Mack has been pegged as an early-impact type of player for a long while now, and so far this spring he has done nothing to lower the expectations. With Brown still recovering from his leg injury and not expected back until camp starts in August, it may be slightly difficult to get a feel for where Mack – as well as a player like Torrance Gibson – really stand in the pecking order.
While the presence of said stripe isn't the be-all and end-all, Gibson – now a redshirt freshman – is still working to shed his. Last week, Meyer indicated that he and Mack are battling it out for one of the starting receiver spots.
"I think Torrance Gibson and Austin Mack right now are battling for the starting X in practice and that also gives guys like Parris Campbell — he’s also battling for the starting X — and Terry McLaurin, some guys who really have to step up and I think they will," Meyer said. "They’ve earned the right to get some playing time."
The eventual return of Brown is going to make it difficult for anyone to supplant him at the X receiver spot, but this spring and summer will go a long way in determining which of the aforementioned names also get to see the field.
So how much is too much to expect from the newest addition to Zach Smith's wide receiver room? In recent years, we haven't seen too many true freshmen wideouts making a name for themselves in live action. In fact, looking across the country, wide receiver has been a fairly tough position to crack early on. Going back to Meyer's arrival in 2012, it's virtually impossible to find a pass-catcher that put up noteworthy numbers in his first season at Ohio State.
Dixon, Alex Stump and Marshall are just a few of the names who were unable to find the field in their first seasons, though much of that can be attributed to injuries and depth at the position. Even Michael Thomas struggled to find playing time in his first year, hauling in just three passes for 22 yards.
Going back a little further, the Buckeyes signed five-star Devier Posey in 2008, and the Cincinnati product managed just 117 yards and found the end zone one time as a true freshman. In 2004, Ted Ginn Jr. caught 25 passes for 359 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Though coming out of high school as a quarterback and defensive back, Ginn certainly lacked the polish of a Posey or Mack.
"Austin Mack is going to play next year. I know it's only two days, and I have a tendency to over-evaluate guys and get too excited, but he's doing fantastic," Meyer said.
So what is it about Mack that has had his head coach gushing since the second day of spring practice? Mack has an impressive frame that's highlighted by a lower body that looks more like what you'd expect to see on a Big Ten running back. He has solid hands and the ability to use his body to go up and get the ball, something the Buckeyes could be lacking with the departure of Thomas.
A lot of wideouts who are big and physical seem to struggle in the speed department, but that doesn't appear to be the case here. Nearly two years ago, in June of 2014, Mack was clocked as low as 4.46 seconds when camping at Ohio State. Does that mean we could expect him to run the same time today if he were to be laser-timed? Absolutely not, but his speed is still impressive, especially when you combine it with all the physical attributes.
Next weekend's spring game is going to be a lot of fun to watch as a number of both new and familiar faces try to make a name for themselves and make a push for one of the many positions that are still up for the taking. A lot of eyes will be on the true freshman who has been garnering some high remarks thus far in the spring.