Smith set career highs in all the relevant categories during his junior campaign, upping his catch total from 30 in 2012 to 44 a season ago, his yardage total from 618 to 660 and his touchdown count from six to eight. In other words, there's no doubting the Ohio State receiver had a very good campaign.
But his last five games paint a different picture about the level of consistency shown by Smith during his junior campaign. He caught just six passes in that span for a total of 136 yards, though he did haul in a pair of touchdown catches in that span. In season-ending losses to Michigan State and Clemson, Smith caught a total of three passes for 16 yards, mimicking the end to his 2012 season when he made 17 grabs in his first four games and 13 the rest of the way.
So it's easy to see a narrative – Smith is a dependable starter and an elite big-play threat, but he hasn't been much of an impact player when the games have been at their biggest over the past two seasons.
"Obviously with some game plans, sometimes it was going away from me, putting the ball in Philly's hands or Braxton or Carlos, things like that," Smith said of his end of the 2013 season. "But I think one thing that hurt me a little bit was toward the end, I was banged up a little bit and not making as many plays in practice, and that kind of held me back from making plays in the game."
And Smith makes some good points. No one ever truly knows just how banged up players are late in a football season – especially one that goes 14 games like the Buckeyes' campaign did a season ago – and the passing offense as a whole wasn't really in sync near the end of the campaign. Braxton Miller completed just 30 passes in Ohio State's final three games, so it's not like there were a lot of balls going to other players.
Smith wasn't totally invisible, either, at the end of the season. He caught a 53-yard touchdown pass to kick-start the offense in the win at Michigan and was a few great plays made by MSU defensive back Darqueze Dennard – the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation's best DB – away from having a huge impact on the Big Ten title game.
But wideouts coach Zach Smith still wants to see Smith do better, especially now that he's ticketed to be the No. 1 wideout with the graduation of Philly Brown.
"The biggest thing that we've had to do and I've had to do is present adversity to him, move him positions and move him around and create those hard situations," Zach Smith said of the spring. "He's great when things are great, and when things are hard that's when he needs to shine and he's been inconsistent in that. So far, so good."
In the coach's eyes, Devin Smith has also fallen into the trap of talent, as one might say. A gifted athlete who won a pair of Ohio state track championships, including the 100-meter dash, his senior year of high school and also has a Big Ten high jump medal to his credit, the Massillion (Ohio) Washington native has often lined up against cornerbacks who were inferior to him.
When he does meet a Dennard or a similarly talented corner, Smith needs to be able to trust his technique and the work he's put in, not just his skill, to lead him to make plays.
"Devin is slowly building the confidence and mentality to be a great player," Zach Smith said. "He needs to take the step for when he plays a great player across from him, he's got to win that matchup. 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."
And as the third-year wideouts coach said, so far, so good. No one questions Smith's ability to go get the deep ball – he pulled in a school-record 90-yard TD from Kenny Guiton in the Cal game this year, and he averages 43.6 yards per touchdown grab the past two seasons – but the hope in the program is he can put together more of an all-around game during his senior campaign.
Smith feels he can do just that.
"I just have to make sure I take care of my body every single day and make the plays that I can, act like practice is a game," he said. "I think if I can do that here and perfect that, I think it'll carry over to the season."