WRs Hope Talent Translates To Production

WRs Hope Talent Translates To Production

Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith said Dontre Wilson, who was a running back in 2013, is the only game-ready wide receiver at the moment. He's hoping for better play this fall out of Devin Smith, Corey Smith, Michael Thomas and others as the Buckeyes look to strengthen a passing game whose production dropped off near the end of the 2013 campaign.

With a pool of four- and five-star players battling for top spots – including a highly regarded class of 2014 early enrollee – Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith has been able to witness what head coach Urban Meyer described as one of the biggest depth chart battles on the team this spring.

So far, the results have been mixed.

The one player who has truly separated himself from the rest is Dontre Wilson, who migrated over from the running backs group where he spent 2013 to take over the starting hybrid "H" back spot from the departing Corey "Philly" Brown.

"Fortunately, we don't play Saturday," Smith said after Thursday's practice, the seventh of spring. "There's not a guy in my room right now other than maybe Dontre that's performing at that consistent level where if we did play Saturday I'd feel good about them performing to the level we expect. The culture is still being created in the room. It's got to be driven by somebody, and it's being driven by me right now. They're starting to embrace it and starting to grow with it."

With Brown departing, senior Devin Smith is the only returning receiver to have averaged more than two catches per game in 2013, finished with 44 catches for 660 yards and eight touchdowns. Evan Spencer (who is missing spring practice with a lower-leg injury) and Wilson both caught 22 passes last fall and are the only other returning wide receivers who caught more than one pass last year.

Those players flashed an ability to produce against lesser competition, with Devin Smith and Wilson especially being able to utilize their speed to rocket past inferior defenders. As the competition stepped up, though, those players faded. Devin Smith hauled in just six catches over the final five games and managed to produce just three catches for 16 yards in the losses to Michigan State and Clemson.

In back-to-back games against Michigan (a one-point win) and Michigan State (a loss that ended a run of 24 consecutive victories), Ohio State completed just six and eight passes, respectively. Against Indiana, a team that ranked 118th in pass defense, the Buckeyes caught just 11 passes.

Zach Smith shed light on this disappearing act when answering a question about Devin Smith that might as well have applied to his entire group.

"He needs to take the step where when he plays a great player across from him, he's got to win that matchup," the wide receivers coach said of the senior. "When adversity strikes and it's hard, he can't lose.

"We played a lot of games where he was faster than the guy he lined up across and that's a gift and a curse. You can run by a guy over and over. Eventually, you play a guy you can't run by and it kind of exposes your flaws. That's what we've harped on since the season ended. He's got to prepare every day to play the best corner in the country so that when he does, he's ready. That's what we're working on right now."

Ohio State's focus on preparation isn't an empty threat, either. Michael Thomas played in 11 games as a true freshman in 2012 but didn't see the field once in 2013 after a lackluster offseason. Instead, he watched from the sidelines as teammates he perceived as being inferior saw the field.

"He didn't have a great fall camp," Zach Smith said. "I didn't play him in the first game, mainly because I wanted him to realize we're not going to go a whole season preparing the way he prepared, performing the way he performed. That's just not what we expect. After that game, we kept going and he kept growing and we didn't want to waste a year on Mike just to catch 12 or 15 balls."

Every receiver that has an actual chance of seeing playing time is a champion on paper. The unit is littered with highly talented guys, but the coaching staff has yet to see any reach his potential for various reasons. Of the three players in the class of 2013, none saw significant action. James Clark will receive a medical redshirt after an early injury, and five-star Jalin Marshall and four-star JUCO transfer Corey Smith both redshirted. Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Greene also sat out the 2013 campaign, although not by choice.

As Zach Smith mentioned several times on Thursday, that talent is both a gift and a curse.

"Saying (Corey Smith) might be the most physically gifted on the team doesn't mean he's the best receiver on the team," he said. "It doesn't mean he's the guy we're going to count on to go be a great player and get the football. He's got to take a lot of steps into being a consistent receiver that we can count on every single day."

Those hard truths don't mean there aren't bright spots in the Ohio State receiving corps. Although he admitted that 2013 didn't go the way he wanted to, Wilson said that he's happy to be at a position that he considers to be the most prolific in the offense aside from quarterback or running back.

True freshman Johnnie Dixon has also caught the eye of his position coach. The 5-11, 198-pound freshman from West Palm Beach, Fla., has made some impressive plays in practice and is already drawing positive reviews.

"He's a grown man for an 18-year-old," Zach Smith said. "He comes in and handles his business. He handles his business outside of this facility, handles his business in the classroom. I'm excited about where he's going to be. Now, he's a typical freshman that's still learning and still trying to figure everything out, but he has the commitment to be great and he's doing everything we ask him to do right now. That's usually a formula for success."

What Zach Smith wants most out of his receivers is the four-to-six seconds of effort on every single play of every practice. The expectations are clear, and several players know from watching on the sidelines last season that anything less than full effort will not be tolerated.

The man charged with making sure that the receiving corps does its part to reinvigorate the passing game this fall has a positive outlook despite the hit-and-miss level of consistency that defined the 2013 season.

"I'm really excited about the group," he said. "We're getting there slowly. Right now, there's a lot of competition. The culture is growing and they're really buying in to what we're trying to build. There's no spot guaranteed and there's no one that's going to start it because I could see a number of guys developing into a great X, great H, great Z, whatever. So we'll see who it is. It's just going to be a matter of time and who comes every single day and brings the effort and competes."

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