- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- With spring practice in the books and Ohio State heading into its offseason conditioning program, BuckeyeNation is looking at the players who boosted their stock with the program the most during those 15 invaluable workouts. The offense will go first this week, followed by a handful of defenders who will be in line for heavy workloads this fall as well.
No. 3: Michael Thomas
Who: The sophomore receiver still might not be a finished product and he didn't leave camp with a claim to a starting job, but there's little doubt that Thomas is trending upward after a season largely spent on the sideline adapting to the college level and the responsibilities at his position. The Buckeyes have two veterans they can feel pretty confident about in Philly Brown and Devin Smith, who are both back and improved as well. Thomas is making a push for an expanded role thanks to an ability to make tough catches, run sharper routes and an apparent ability to make catches despite contact against tight coverage. At a minimum, the spread offense should include more targets in the rotation even before the new wave of signees report this summer.
Spring progress: Thomas turned in a buzz-worthy camp in the 2012 spring practice as an early enrollee, but he certainly wasn't prepared to live up to the hype as he struggled to get a grasp on the playbook last fall. With the benefit of a full year to get acclimated and up to speed, his natural skills were put on display with more regularity during open workouts in March and April. Thomas was able to adjust to balls on deep routes and consistently haul them in with his strong hands. Passes that might have been somewhat off target on intermediate routes were snagged thanks to his size and reach, and with his weight up close to 200 pounds, Thomas wasn't pushed around by cornerbacks who bumped, and he more than held his own in one-on-one passing drills during an impressive series of workouts.
Jockeying for position: Brown and Smith are comfortably at the top of the depth chart, just as they were at the end of last season. And while the addition of a handful of potential playmakers from the recent signing class will add to the competition in training camp, the battle for time is already heating up thanks to the emergence of Chris Fields, some development by Evan Spencer and the improved comfort of Thomas. Fields was given the third starting position coming out of spring, but Thomas isn't likely to fade away in the fall, as he did as a freshman.
He said it: "I mean, he developed, he came along. He was a true freshman, and he wasn’t as good as I hoped he was going to be or as good as he hoped he was going to be. But the best thing that happened to him was having to deal with success and failure, and having to go into an offseason saying, ‘My God, I was nowhere near where I want to be or where this offense for my head coach needs me to be.’ It really fueled the last six months." -- wide receivers coach Zach Smith, on Thomas
Closing number: The second spring game for Thomas wasn't quite as explosive as the first, but he still put his mark on the exhibition with another productive outing during a pass-heavy afternoon. Thomas finished with seven catches for 79 yards, including a long of 31, and had a touchdown reception that highlighted his ability to come down with the football in traffic.
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