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2014 Ohio State Rewind: Wide Receivers
By James Vogel
Thomas grew into a star in 2014.
Photo by Jim Davidson
 

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A “clown show.” Jokers. Guys who can’t make people miss on the outside.

Those were just a few ways Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer described the wide receiver group he and his coaching staff inherited prior to the 2012 football season. Outside of Corey “Philly” Brown and deep threat Devin Smith, not many players did much as far as catching the football that year. The numbers improved slightly in 2013 with the addition of guys like Dontre Wilson, but the group as a whole really took a giant step in 2014.

Expectations Coming Into The Season

The two biggest losses at wide receiver were both Brown and Chris Fields. The former led the Buckeyes in receptions (63), yards (771) and touchdowns (10) in 2013, but six of the latter’s 16 catches went for scores that year. That type of efficiency in the scoring department would be a loss no matter how Ohio State looked at it because Fields was a valuable target in the redzone for Braxton Miller and Kenny Guiton.

With that said, the group as a whole showed steady improvement all year long under wide receivers coach Zach Smith. During spring practice and into fall camp the players and coaches spoke often about the development of the younger players who could grow into weapons for Miller. More playmakers on the outside would help keep his jersey clean and thus keep him out of harm’s way, but his shoulder injury put that theory to bed in late August.

Regardless, the Buckeyes really liked Mike Thomas, Jalin Marshall, Corey Smith and others to work in with Wilson and Evan Spencer. Zach Smith also had high hopes for freshmen like Johnnie Dixon and James Clark before injuries set them back.

Aside from how Barrett would do getting the ball to playmakers on the outside in place of Miller, how the young talent performed on Saturdays around him was also a big question mark.

How The Season Played Out

After taking to Twitter to share his disgust before, during and after Ohio State’s losses to Michigan State and Clemson in the 2013 postseason, Thomas came back with a vengeance off a redshirt season and grew into a complete wideout.

His 54 catches led the Buckeyes while the 799 receiving yards and nine touchdowns were second only to Devin Smith on the team. Thomas also made big plays when the Buckeyes needed them most, notably breaking a tackle on a slant pass against Michigan State and taking it 79 yards for a touchdown to tie the game. The terrific one-footed grab he made on a pass from Evan Spencer against Alabama completed a trick play for the Buckeyes and brought some needed fireworks to the Superdome.

Basically, Thomas got better as the season wore on and pretty well backed up the sentiments he posted on Twitter following last season. He made plays — just like he said he would.

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Devin Smith continued to be the deep threat for Ohio State, earning the title of “the best deep-ball catcher in America” from both Meyer and quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Tom Herman. The 28.2 yards per reception he averaged in 2014 led the nation and he leaves Ohio State with 30 career receiving touchdowns — that’s second only to David Boston’s 34 in program history.

Devin Smith also flew down the field on punt coverage with a wealth of delight, often making the tackle or pinning the ball deep in opponent territory. He did it all for Ohio State in 2014, and even excelled further once Cardale Jones took over for Barrett in the postseason behind Jones’ big arm and touch throwing the deep ball.

Aside from Thomas and Devin Smith, Jalin Marshall slowly worked his way into a better fit with the Ohio State offense by season’s end, mainly because Wilson was out with a foot injury after the Buckeyes beat Michigan State. His speed and good hands allowed him to catch a combined 10 passes for 107 yards during the semifinal and championship games of the College Football Playoff. More than a few of those were big conversions on 3rd and long plays, where Jones stood in the pocket and patiently waited for him to come open. Marshall finished with 38 receptions (second-best on the team) for 499 yards and six touchdowns, while also being a threat in the running game as the H-Back in Meyer’s offense. To top it all off, by season’s end he was the backup quarterback behind Jones and its punt returner. Along with a healthy Wilson, Marshall figures to be a big part of the H-Back discussion next season.

Lest we forget Spencer, the guy Meyer dubbed Ohio State’s Most Valuable Player in 2014.

Spencer’s receiving numbers weren’t exactly staggering — 15 receptions, 149 yards and three touchdowns — but his ability as a blocker on the edge had Meyer, Herman and Ed Warinner grinning from ear to ear all season. Almost always on the field on offense, Spencer earned his keep as a vocal leader and guy who was willing to do the dirty work. Some of his final stamps on the championship season were the vicious block he laid on a pair of Alabama defenders that sprung Ezekiel Elliott’s 85-yard score in the Sugar Bowl and the recovery of the Crimson Tide's onside kick with less than two minutes to play.

Meyer's team MVP.
Photo by Dan Harker
 

“He’s the leader of our team,” Meyer said. “He’s the guy that, at the right time, I’ll probably make an executive decision and make him captain.”

It hasn’t been released yet that Meyer has officially done that, but Spencer is one of the handful of guys he called up at the national championship celebration ceremony to raise the trophies and speak to the Ohio Stadium crowd.

He, just like the rest of Zach Smith’s receiving corps, was a big part in Ohio State’s title run in 2014.

What We Should Expect in 2015

There’s no denying the losses of Spencer and Devin Smith will hurt Ohio State’s offense in some way, shape or form.

Whoever gets the nod at quarterback next season will be without the stellar speed and downfield adjustment ability of Devin Smith and the edge running game will miss Spencer from a blocking standpoint.

At a place like Ohio State, the coaching staff doesn't rebuild — it reloads.

Wilson, Marshall and Thomas headline a group that has big playmaking ability, but don’t count out Corey Smith either.

As a redshirt junior, Corey Smith got more opportunities by season’s end to have his hands on the ball and for the most part it paid dividends. He fumbled against Oregon following a long reception, but showed the necessary speed and quickness needed to get away from the Duck defensive backs. He also provided plenty of highlights with a number of blocks he threw late in the season and became a vital part of the kickoff coverage team. Expect him to look to make a big impact with his final year of eligibility.

Sophomore Noah Brown should also see more time in 2015, as Zach Smith said he’s lost more weight and getting better. He became the backup H-Back to Marshall once Wilson went down with the injury, but we haven’t really seen what he’s capable of with the ball in his hands.

Young guys like Clark and Dixon are coming off injuries and will be expected to step in and be ready to push for playing time in the wide receiver room. The same goes for guys like Terry McLaurin and Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Greene.

 

K.J. Hill, an incoming freshman from North Little Rock, Ark., was one of the biggest gets for Meyer in the 2015 class, a speedy guy who has strength in and out of cuts. With Cleveland receiver Alex Stump, Hill’s signing day commitment gave the Buckeyes two true wideouts in the 2015 class. A.J. Alexander could either be a tight end, wide receiver or even H-Back. And don’t expect 4-star quarterback Torrance Gibson to be a part of the equation at wide receiver — Zach Smith made it clear on signing day Wednesday that Gibson came to Ohio State to play quarterback.

The cupboard isn’t bare for the Buckeyes at wide receiver despite the graduations of Devin Smith and Spencer. And with the way Zach Smith’s developed the position, it should continue to thrive with another year under its belt.

Final Thoughts

Hill could be one of those guys who has an immediate impact on the program like Wilson did two years ago. Zach Smith isn’t going to put guys on the field who he doesn’t trust with the ball, and he’s already got four candidates with Corey Smith, Thomas, Wilson and Marshall.

In Meyer’s spread offense, though, the more athletic guys on the edge who can make plays, the better. Ohio State’s offense — on paper — doesn’t look like it has much of a downfield threat with the loss of Devin Smith. But Meyer did say Wednesday he wants to throw the ball more in order to achieve more balance on offense, an interesting statement seeing as how we don’t know who’s set to start at quarterback.

Either way, the talent at wide receiver is there. That wasn’t the case three years ago.

Previous Rewinds

Tight Ends

Offensive Line

Defensive Backs

Linebackers

Defensive Tackles

Defensive Ends

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