Ohio State wide receiver Austin Mack, for the most part, has lurked in the shadows during his first two seasons as a member of Zone Six despite arriving in Columbus as a consensus four-star recruit ranked as high as the nation's No. 10 receiver prospect.
Those shadows loomed a bit larger over the last week as it became clear all four of his NFL Draft-eligible receiving mates – Parris Campbell, K.J. Hill, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon – would all return for one more collegiate season.
Though H-backs Campbell (40 rec, 584 yds) and Hill (56 rec, 549 yds) weren't direct positional competition since Mack is a true outside receiver, the duo posted the most and second-most catches and yards on the team in 2017 and therefore it's safe to assume they'll be top targets in 2018 though it's worth mentioning the Buckeyes could opt to target the outside receivers downfield more often next season if the rocket-armed Dwayne Haskins wins the starting quarterback gig.
On the outside, Mack will once again compete for targets with McLaurin, Dixon, Ben Victor and C.J. Saunders, among others.
Of those returning outside receivers, only McLaurin had more receptions (29) than Mack (24) though both McLaurin (436) and Dixon (422) had more yards than Mack's 343.
Though Mack ranked just fifth on the team with those 24 receptions and sixth with the 343 yards, he was arguably the most sure-handed receiver on the roster along with Hill.
Maybe even more important, though Mack had one catch or less in six of his 13 games played, he typically stepped up with a big play or two in the biggest games on the schedule.
In the 31-16 loss to Oklahoma way back in September, Mack hauled in what was then a huge 31-yard completion giving Ohio State 1st-and-Goal from the Sooner 7-yard line. The Buckeyes would eventually kick a field goal to take a 13-10 lead midway through the third quarter before the wheels came off.
During the most memorable game of the year, Ohio State's miraculous 39-38 comeback win over Penn State, Mack was right in the thick of the action with a career-high six catches for 90 yards. He hauled in a 36-yard toss from J.T. Barrett putting OSU in business at the Nittany Lion 16-yard line to set up a McLaurin touchdown catch cutting Penn State's lead to 21-10 early in the second quarter.
Late in the fourth quarter, Mack snagged two passes for 29 yards setting up Dixon's 10-yard touchdown catch trimming the PSU lead to 38-33 with 4:20 to play.
Four games later against Michigan, Mack turned in the catch of the year as he went up to snag a 27-yard throw from Haskins on a 3rd-and-13 play setting up a J.K. Dobbins touchdown plunge giving Ohio State a 21-20 lead with 1:34 left in the third quarter.
Finally, in the win over USC at the Cotton Bowl, Mack accounted for half of Ohio State's team receiving yards with three receptions for 56 yards. Among the production was a clutch 33-yard catch-and-go on 3rd-and-8 and later on the same drive, a 15-yard reception leading a Sean Nuernberger field goal and a 10-0 Buckeye lead.
In addition to his team-leading receiving effort, Mack also helped spring Barrett's 28-yard touchdown run with an excellent downfield block which was nothing new for the 6-foot-2, 215 pounder.
With a full season as a key cog in the Zone Six rotation under his belt coupled with the confidence gained from contributing his fair share of clutch plays and the potential for Ohio State's offense to look to push the downfield more often, it's a good bet Mack will break out in 2018, improving his production across the board.