It's hard to believe that the Spring Game is just under two months away. In case you missed it, last week, we previewed the running backs, and we're just getting to the meat of the offense.
Upon first arriving on campus, Urban Meyer complained loudly and often about a singular lack of playmakers at the wide receiver position. He implored Corey Brown and Devin Smith to step up their respective games all the while searching for impact freshmen around the country that could provide him the Pivot type of player that he needed to run his offense properly. Brown did an admirable job, but what the Buckeyes lacked at the time was straight line, electrifying, breakaway speed. Meyer thinks he has that in his new freshman signees James Clark, Dontre Wilson and Corey Smith. Clark is the fastest of the new recruits; Smith and Wilson provide some physicality, and Jalin Marshall, more of a traditional style receiver, is silky-smooth with the ball in his hands. The three aforementioned players will most likely either play receiver, running back In Wilson's case, or the aforementioned "pivot" position, and will have to make up for some offseason departures.
In October of last year, Ricquan Southward left the team for personal reasons. The Lakeland, Florida native still has eligibility remaining, but it won't be used as a Buckeye. Tyrone "T.Y." Williams was also dismissed for a violation of team rules and is currently playing at Division II Ohio Dominican, and Verlon Reed (whom some including yours truly thought would surprise last season) transferred to Division II Findlay.
Not much is expected of preferred walk-on and Maine native Peter Gwilym, walk-on Stacey Blunt, nor walk-on Frank Kangah, but Ohio State is also looking to add another preferred walk-on in the form of Luke Vadas, covered here.
Now, to the meat and potatoes of the position. Ohio State has five veteran receivers in the form of Corey (don't call him Philly) Brown, Devin Smith, Chris Fields, Evan Spencer and Michael Thomas. Brown and Smith are largely entrenched in their starting spots. One or two of these players may be marginalized due to the emergence of a star freshman or simply due to a numbers game, but the incumbent starters are the solid-in-2012 Smith and Brown.
What the coaches desired with Devin Smith was consistency all throughout the season.. He was constantly able to get behind the defense (an ability he'd flashed against Wisconsin in his redshirt freshman year) and was able to break tackles and provide a speed boost when necessary. He also made several spectacular catches, including the most memorable and heavily GIF-d of 2012 against Miami of Ohio. For all that, Smith still struggled to hang on to the ball.
ESPN does not keep stats for dropped passes, but fans know that Smith had issues with that all season. He was Ohio State's big-play threat, making 30 catches for 618 yards and six touchdowns to lead the team while averaging just over 20 yards per reception. He also returned punts and kicks on occasion. However, inconsistency plagued Smith, as he was completely shut out of the Nebraska and Penn State games – two prime-time games where big time receivers are expected to shine. More must be expected out of Smith, as Buckeye fans have seen flashes of big-time talent.
Rising senior Corey Brown will be the rock of the group. As a junior, he was Braxton Miller's most trusted target, amassing sixty catches (a previously unheard-of total under the old regime) for 669 yards and three touchdowns. Brown compiled a solid game's worth of stats running the ball, with 10 carries for 93 yards and a score. He also contributed two scores on punt return duty, although it is not clear if he will be manning that position when the season starts with so many options available. Brown, after being told to "be a player I want to coach" in practice by Meyer, took off as a possession receiver and showed some real elusiveness in the open field, as well as not being too bad himself at sneaking behind the defense. Brown looks like he's going to be "the guy" that Braxton Miller looks for first and foremost. As that trust continues to build up expect NFL scouts to take notice of Brown's abilities. Right now, he is the most polished receiver on the team.
With the backup positions, the real battles start. Evan Spencer was the team's third leading receiver last season, with 12 catches for 136 yards. He spent most of his time in the slot or as a spell to Brown at the X position. The 6'2, 205 lb rising junior brings similar attributes to Corey Brown as well as a knack for making the odd spectacular catch. He will be in direct competition with many others for that third receiver spot and could find himself between fourth and eighth in the pecking order if things don't go his way.
Chris Fields had to have attracted some attention to himself with his clutch play in the Purdue game. He made two big catches from Kenny Guiton, but other than that was largely invisible during the rest of the season. He was tried on punt returns, but mostly called for fair catches. However, Fields' late touchdown showed that the rising senior can be counted on in a big moment, and will be called on for veteran leadership. If he has a good camp, he could well stake his name to a slot receiver position.
Michael Thomas is an enigma. Nearly a year ago he wowed us all in the spring game, and Urban Meyer named him to the media as one of the top playmakers behind Corey Brown. But for whatever reason, Devin Smith prevented Thomas from usurping his spot and the rising freshman was not really counted on during the season. Thomas was mostly used as a blocker downfield on running plays, as the big (6'2, 200lbs) receiver seems to have a knack for getting in the way of opposing defensive backs. Thomas will have to continue to prove his worth as a possession receiver, as he only made three catches (to be fair, he didn't have many chances) last year.
OSU legacy Frank Epitropoulos redshirted last year and isn't a favorite to see the field in 2013. A great spring/summer would help, but he appears likely to get tripped up by the numbers game.
Any one of the bottom three receivers is subject to being passed by a true freshman superstar. It looks like, right now, Jalin Marshall will be lined up out wide and fit more into the Devin Smith type role. He will compete for this spot with JUCO transfer Corey Smith, who is a rangy 6'0, 170lb receiver with speed to burn. Neither of these players is likely to redshirt, and will have to work hard to supplant the incumbents for playing time. Smith may be the most polished of the entire group and could surprise rising up the depth chart early. James Clark's biggest impact right away may be in the return game, unless his speed proves to be too electrifying to leave off the field. Dontre Wilson should also provide a much-needed spark to that position.
All in all, the receiving group has veteran leadership, possession receivers and speed demons – everything an Urban Meyer team should have. It remains to be seen whether the three veteran non-starting receivers, Fields, Spencer and Thomas, are supplanted by the incoming freshmen. That ought to make camp even more interesting.