"While Thomas can get lost in Ohio State's constellation of stars, he's the team's sole proven commodity at wide receiver, a position at which the Buckeyes have endured an epidemic of attrition, suspensions and injury."
- Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans, Sports Illustrated
If Ohio State wants to walk out of Blacksburg as the victor on Monday night, it might come down to Michael Thomas, no matter who is lining up under center. The spring game superstar-turned-indispensable weapon will need to have a big game to keep the wheels of the Buckeye offense moving. He's really the only available Ohio State receiver with any game experience (we see you, Jeff Greene), and although Braxton Miller and Curtis Samuel will bring their dynamic playmaking skills to the position this season, game one's success might fall on Thomas' seasoned shoulders.
That's a scenario that would have seemed implausible a few years ago. Thomas was ignored by most large programs coming out of high school, and when he enrolled at prep school to better his chances of landing with an elite program, he still couldn't command a ton of attention -- Cardale Jones was his classmate and lived in his dorm building, and he was the one scouts drooled over. Still, he put together a nice season, one that brought him an Ohio State offer. He chose the Buckeyes because of a "dearth of playmakers," something you'd be hard-pressed to say now.
Thomas is the nephew of former NFL star receiver Keyshawn Johnson. Johnson says that he pushed big-name coaches hard to recruit Thomas, but he was ignored by the likes of Lane Kiffin (then at USC) and Steve Sarkisian (now at USC, then at Washington). Johnson says he now gives those coaches a hard time for daring to overlook his nephew, projected as a first-round draft pick in 2016.
"It's a major concern. An Ohio kid...sometimes they develop late. If you don't have a space for a Tyvis Powell, that's awful. So we're very concerned about that."
- Urban Meyer, via Ari Wasserman, Northeast Ohio Media Group
It's no secret that Ohio State has been pantsing every other school in the country when it comes to recruiting since Urban Meyer came to town. Under Meyer, the Buckeyes have reeled in commitments from players that the school realistically wouldn't have had a chance with when Jim Tressel -- bless his heart -- was at the helm. But when it comes to expanding the recruiting footprint nationally, is there such a problem as "too much of a good thing"? Meyer worries that might be the case.
Perhaps the biggest (or perhaps the only) drawback to planting flags all over the country is that it might leave the state of Ohio unprotected. Guys like Darron Lee, who has become one of the Buckeyes' most irreplaceable players, or Tyvis Powell, another three-star recruit without much shine coming out of high school, might start getting overlooked as the demand for poaching five-star players from out of state grows. That frightens Meyer, according to Wasserman. "I cant stand it, to be honest with you," he said, "but how can you walk away from a kid that you think is a good one?"
It's a tough balance to strike, to be sure. Jim Tressel had the borders of Ohio about as secure as humanly possible, but it often came at the expense of a chance to be competitive with SEC programs, who will recruit from just about anywhere. Meyer is a coast-to-coast recruiter, but more and more Ohio players -- a group Wasserman dubs "The Leftovers" -- are leaking out to the likes of Penn State and Michigan State. That's not ideal, either.
"No matter what we did, and what adjustments we made, we couldn't get something going. It was kind of a too-little, too-late thing."
- Taylor Decker, via Norm Wood, Daily Press
By now, it's hardly a secret that Virginia Tech's "Bear" front can do a lot of damage on defense. Ohio State got to witness it firsthand, as the Hokies rolled into Columbus last season and put the only blemish on the Buckeyes' record in 2014. "It sucked," says Decker, the anchor of Ohio State's offensive line. "One thing we don't do here is lose at home." Somehow, it doesn't seem like the Buckeyes will be this unprepared or over-matched heading into Monday night.
That's not to say the defense that Ohio State faces will look exactly the same as it did a year ago, when it spoiled J.T. Barrett's second career start and appeared to doom the Buckeyes' playoff hopes. Virginia Tech's defensive coordinator, Bud Foster, is an evil genius who will undoubtedly have tinkered with his sets to make life as hard as possible for whoever lines up under center on Monday. The good news is that whoever that may be -- the QBs will know tomorrow, though everyone else will have to wait until the game -- comes into Blacksburg with a lot more experience than the Buckeyes had last year. J.T. Barrett is not the green quarterback that he was a year ago, while Cardale Jones saw and slew bigger dragons than even Virginia Tech's.
It also doesn't hurt that the offensive line, such a point of concern heading into 2014, is much improved. The 'slobs' rate as one of the best units in the country, and while they will have their hands full with the Hokies' front seven, they won't fall apart like they did at times against the Bear front last year. While suspensions and injuries will certainly hamper the Buckeyes, there's no doubt that Urban Meyer's team will come ready to play.
"It might seem counterintuitive because the Virginia Tech front wreaked so much havoc in the victory last year, but...the Hokies were able to do that because their defensive backs were able to play one-on-one so effectively."
- Andrea Adelson, ESPN.com
Speaking of the Bear front, it's an awfully hard defense to run if you don't have a competent secondary to prop it up. Unfortunately for Ohio State, already so thin at receiver (see above), the Hokies might have just that. It's not a guarantee -- several players in VT's secondary are coming off of injuries or switching positions -- but star cornerback Kendall Fuller is a sure thing, and he's going to be key for that defense against the Buckeyes.
Andrea Adelson and Austin Ward of ESPN.com broke down some of the other keys to the game, which for some reason is on everyone's minds heading into the weekend. They list Ezekiel Elliott and Michael Brewer as the two offensive players most likely to have an impact on the game. Zeke, in particular, will look to improve on his nigh-invisible performance from last year's game, while Brewer will hope that Ohio State's inexperience in the front four will buy him more time to make throws to his stable of capable pass catchers.
On defense, Adelson and Ward think things will hinge on VT's defensive backs and Ohio State's experience. While Sam Hubbard and Tommy Schutt will be taking on meaningful roles for the first time, they'll have support from guys like Adolphus Washington and Joshua Perry, no strangers to making huge plays against stiff competition.