For Corey Smith, the 2016 season will be one of finality. The sixth-year senior has one more opportunity to leave a lasting mark as a member of the Scarlet and Grey, one last chance to make an impression upon NFL front offices.
Ohio State’s journeyman receiver is no stranger to the eleventh hour.
Smith’s road to Columbus has been a long one, especially for a kid who played high school ball at Akron Buchtel. Smith struggled with grades early in his high school career, which influenced his decision to attend junior college after graduation. As a freshman in 2011, he helped Grand Rapids (Mich.) Community College to a 10-0 season, catching 28 passes for 438 yards and two touchdowns.
Despite the undefeated campaign, Grand Rapids disbanded its 80-year-old football program, forcing Smith to search for a new home. So he looked south of the Mason-Dixon to Scooba, MS and Eastern Mississippi Community College.
Today, EMCC is one of the most well known community colleges in the country, thanks in large part to Netflix’s documentary of the football team, Last Chance U. The six-part series chronicles a program known for taking academically or socially troubled talent such as Chad Kelly and LeGarrette Blount, and molding them into Division-1 stars. Many look to EMCC as a last chance to realize gridiron dreams, a springboard back to big-time college football.
Marcus Wood recruited Smith to Scooba as EMCC’s offensive coordinator and receivers coach. In Smith he saw a total package; a guy that could burn a defense downfield with his speed on one play, and get his nose dirty as a blocker on the next.
Back home in Ohio, Urban Meyer saw the same thing as he put the finishing touches on his 2013 recruiting class. Smith had been committed to Mississippi State for more than a year when he finally took his official visit to Columbus in January of 2013. But the Buckeyes desperately needed receiver help after finishing 110th in passing yards a year before.
“I think they really sold him on the pitch that we want you back home, help us turn this thing back to where it was,” said Wood, who still keeps in contact with Smith today. “And that was his dream school anyway. So when he got that offer, it was a no-brainer.”
Of all the prospects that Meyer has brought to Columbus through five recruiting cycles, only two hail from the junior college ranks. There’s an expectation that all recruits should arrive on campus ready to compete for a spot and contribute, but that especially holds true for a JUCO. Smith didn’t live up to that expectation, redshirting in his first year on campus.
In 2014 he started to slowly realize his potential, but there were growing pains along the way. In the lone loss to Virginia Tech Smith dropped a crucial would-be touchdown. In the Championship game against Oregon he raced downfield on a 47-yard catch and run, only to carelessly fumble the ball away at the 9-yard line.
Still, Smith proved his worth when it mattered most during the Buckeyes’ championship run. In that same game against Oregon, Smith found a hole in the Ducks’ zone defense on a pivotal third down. The conversion moved OSU out of its own end zone and swung momentum for the Buckeyes.
Any coach will tell you that field position largely dictates outcomes in competitive battles between evenly matched programs. Smith was an absolute menace on special teams in the Sugar Bowl, blitzing through Alabama’s kickoff coverage to down the Tide returner inside the 15-yard line not once or twice, but three times.
Meyer demands that his skill position players excel on special teams before they can expect to significantly contribute as offensive weapons. With that in mind, there was hope within the program that Smith would parlay his special teams excellence into dominance as a receiver in 2015.
The promise of a breakout season never formulated for Smith, however. He was suspended for the opener at Virginia Tech due to a violation of team rules, and then broke his leg against Indiana less than a month later. Through four games he caught just five passes for 62 yards.
If you are looking for a reason that things will be different for Smith in 2016, look no further than the fact that he is still on the team. The NCAA granted Smith a sixth year of eligibility due to medical hardship, but Ohio State was not obligated to extend the receiver’s scholarship for another year.
Scholarships are a premium commodity these days in Columbus. Every February it seems as if Meyer is forced to narrowly play limbo with the 85-man scholarship limit. Meyer could have offered Smith’s spot to a talented high school senior with four years of eligibility and untapped potential. Instead he brought back a receiver who has never caught a touchdown as a Buckeye.
Meyer’s faith in Smith could be a sign that the latter has finally turned a corner, on and off the field.
“The fact that they battled to get him a sixth year says a lot about how he is as a player,” Wood said. “If he’s a problem guy, a trouble guy, they’re probably not going to fight so hard to get his year back. Especially with the amount of talent that they have at receiver.”
Ohio State has up to 12 players vying for significant time at wide receiver this fall. On Tuesday, position coach Zach Smith told the media he’d like to have six starters in his group. Corey Smith is a likely front-runner for one of those spots, given his experience compared to an otherwise young but deep and talented unit.
That opportunity can vanish as fast as it appears at a place like Ohio State, where every year a new crop of highly recruited talent comes to Columbus. A sixth-year of eligibility is rare in college athletics. A seventh never happens.
It’s now or never for Ohio State’s Corey Smith. In some ways, it always has been.