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Michael Thomas might be the key to Ohio State's revenge hopes

In a game where the Buckeyes are missing the core of their receiving group and depending on lots of inexperienced, although physically talented players, Michael Thomas is your key offensive player this week.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

As Ohio State prepares to open its season with severely depleted receiving corps, here's why Michael Thomas is the player to watch on offense this week.

The stats

Year: Junior

Height: 6'3

Weight: 210 lbs.

Current Stat Line: 54 rec., 799 yards, 9 TD (2014 season)

Thomas has been locked in this camp, and is a true team player.  His signature phrase - "shhhhhh" - denotes his ability to block out distractions and focus on the tasks at hand.  Thomas has even gone on a Lebron-James-style media diet in the days leading up to the Virginia Tech game.

The game situation

Ohio State's top four receivers from last year have either graduated or are suspended for this game - that's a lot of receiving production to replace.  Stepping into those shoes are converted quarterbacks and a lot of raw, young talent that hasn't seen much playing time yet.  Thomas was Ohio State's leading receiver last year in terms of number of receptions, and now he's solidly the veteran leader of #Zone6.

Virginia Tech's got the defense to challenge Ohio State's run game again this year.  Last year, a weak offensive line and inexperienced quarterback couldn't take advantage of experienced receivers who could stretch the field.  This year, the story is reversed - Ohio State's offensive line is world's better, the running game is more developed, the quarterback will have confidence and game experience, but the receivers are the unknown factor. The question last year was whether J.T. Barrett could deliver the ball to the playmakers.  This year, does Ohio State have enough playmakers to catch passes?

Thomas had a great game last year against Virginia Tech, grabbing 6 receptions for 98 yards and a touchdown.

What to watch for

Keep your eyes peeled for whether Thomas is occupying downfield defenders.  If Thomas is a strong receiving threat, he can drag players out of the box, down the field, and away from the run.  Better yet, he can put playmakers like Braxton Miller and Curtis Samuel in positions to catch a ball and only have to make one man miss before heading for paydirt.  Even if Thomas doesn't turn in a great individual stat line, he can contribute to a victory by making things easier for the rest of the team.

That being said, Thomas is taller than all of the Hokie defensive backs and likely faster than most.  He's got the physical presence to have a strong receiving game.  Ideally, you want Thomas catching a few nice balls early in the game, earning the attention of the Virginia Tech defensive backfield, and giving the rest of the Buckeyes an easier path to victory.  Early in a season-opener, Thomas will be the only dependable Ohio State receiver.

Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech's All-American cornerback, will likely be tasked with covering Ohio State's lead receiver on Monday.  Fuller is projected as an early-round NFL draft pick, and this may be his biggest stage for the year.  Thomas will need to shrug off his coverage, or at least occupy Fuller from picking on the rest of the receiving group.

The conclusion

Yes, of course the run game is going to be critical on Labor Day - but unless there's a passing game to compliment it, the Buckeyes are in for a long night.  If Thomas gets shut down early, or if the Hokie pass rush pressures Barrett or Jones too much, the entire Buckeye offense could be in trouble.  Look for Thomas to be the bellwether for this team - if he's doing good things, there's a fairly good chance things are going pretty well for the whole Buckeye team.