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An advanced stats look at Ohio State's wide receivers

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Losing Devin Smith is huge for the Buckeye passing game, but do the advanced stats suggest that there is enough depth on the roster to replace his production?

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This week we'll continue our look at the advanced stats and Buckeye skill players by moving to the wide receivers.

The 2015 passing game, orchestrated by J.T. Barrett, took off in a way Buckeye fans were unaccustomed to since Troy Smith's Heisman-winning days in Columbus. The offense was certainly power-run first, but it was now balanced by an accurate, reliable passing game that created opportunities vertically and horizontally. No longer did passing downs necessarily make you cringe -- Michael Thomas, Devin Smith, and Jalin Marshall formed a receiving trio that was reliable and even sporadically explosive.

Once again I used data from Bill, accessible here. The following chart does not include receiving data from Johnnie Dixon, Marcus Baugh, Rod Smith, Noah Brown, or Jeff Green, all of whom made a reception in 2014, but simply made the chart too big.

The data

Player Class Yards CatchRate Target % YdsPerCatch SD CatchRate PD CatchRate RYPR
Curtis Samuel FR 95 78.6% 3.7% (10th) 8.6 72.7% 100.0% 16.6 (822nd)
Evan Spencer SR 149 40.5% 9.7% (4th) 9.9 45.5% 33.3% 26 (605th)
Jeff Heuerman SR 207 68.0% 6.5% (8th) 12.2 66.7% 70.0% 36.1 (458th)
Nick Vannett JR 220 82.6% 6% (9th) 11.6 83.3% 80.0% 38.4 (432nd)
Ezekiel Elliott SO 220 87.5% 8.4% (7th) 7.9 93.8% 81.3% 38.4 (431st)
Corey Smith JR 255 60.6% 8.6% (6th) 12.8 57.9% 64.3% 44.5 (370th)
Dontre Wilson SO 300 61.8% 8.9% (5th) 14.3 57.7% 75.0% 52.4 (306th)
Jalin Marshall FR 499 73.1% 13.6% (2nd) 13.1 68.6% 82.4% 87.2 (123rd)
Michael Thomas SO 799 72.0% 19.6% (1st) 14.8 72.0% 72.0% 139.5 (27th)
Devin Smith SR 931 68.8% 12.6% (3rd) 28.2 65.6% 75.0% 162.6 (16th)

In the table above, pass catchers (including wide receivers, running backs, tight ends, and hybrid players) are organized by total receiving yards. Most of the statistics are self-explanatory, but "SD" and "PD" stand for standard down and pass down, respectively. RYPR is Bill's total measure of receiver performance.

Here are my thoughts on the results:

  • Replacing Devin Smith is a huge priority next season. Smith's stats probably confirm exactly what your eyes told you: he's a sproadically-used, big play, field-stretching threat. More specifically, Smith was the second-most explosive wide receiver in the NCAA last season with 537 net explosive yards, which was also 58% of his total yards. He averaged nearly twice as many yards per reception than the next-best receiver (Michael Thomas, who is also second-most explosive on the team, but 80th in the country) and led the team in receiving yards despite being targeted just the third-most on the team. Further, Smith was reliable, catching slightly over 2/3 of his targets, and up to 3/4 of Passing Down targets. He was a prototypical big-play guy: at his best in must-pass situations, with the highest average yards per catch, but not targeted all that often except for big plays. But despite being used in a fairly one-dimensional way, he had a much larger effect on the offense 2014 offense, stretching the field vertically and balancing the running backs' and hybrid players' ability to stretch the field horizontally.
  • Michael Thomas looks like the heir apparent in the featured-receiver position. He had an excellent catch rate overall, was constant between standard and passing downs, was the second-most explosive receiver on the team, and was targeted the most of any player in the passing game. But that doesn't mean he'll move in to Devin Smith's more one-dimensional role, however: look for another player to step in to that spot. You got the sense that Tom Herman really wanted Corey Smith to take that job, but a lower catch rate really didn't do Smith many favors, particularly on the deep passes.
  • Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall have fairly similar statistical profiles in the passing game, but 1) Wilson was injured for the second-half of the season, and 2) Marshall had a better catch rate (by over 11%). Regardless of his injury, Wilson was the fourth-most targeted player on standard downs, but only the 8th-most targeted player on passing downs. So either the Buckeyes' offense began to pass more on passing downs rather than on standard downs during his injury, or the coaches preferred to have Marshall on the field over Wilson on definite passing downs.
  • In addition to a Devin Smith-style big play guy, the passing game next season should hope for Marshall, Wilson, or one of the other younger guys (like Johnnie Dixon or Noah Brown) to have a better explosiveness rating than this season. Despite a significant increase in team speed in the Meyer era, the Buckeye receivers haven't generated as many explosive plays from short-yardage passes -- those passes have been more chain-movers than opportunities for shifty receivers to make a move and break in to open space.
  • Even though Heuerman will almost surely be drafted, Nick Vannett might actually be an upgrade over 2014 Jeff Heuerman, who was injured for much of the season. Vannett was targeted slightly less often than Heuerman, but had more receiving yards and a significantly better catch rate than Heuerman.
  • Overall there is significant opportunity for young players to step in and contribute in 2015. Losing the team receiving yards leader and field stretching threat is one obvious issue, but depth for possession-style receivers is a question, as is the consistency of the hybrid/slot receivers. The personnel, however, is there -- it's just relatively inexperienced, making the wide receivers one of the most exciting position groups to watch in the spring and summer.