Position preview: Wide receivers

August, 6, 2013
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Breaking down the Ohio State roster as training camp starts to heat up and the program turns its attention to the opener on Aug. 31 against Buffalo.

WIDE RECEIVERS

[+] EnlargeDevin Smith, Isaiah Lewis
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDevin Smith looks to get help from some newcomers this fall.
Top of the depth chart: Philly Brown and Devin Smith on the perimeter with Chris Fields in the slot

Next in line: Michael Thomas might not have been able to crack the starting lineup with another impressive spring camp, but the sophomore is certainly knocking loudly on the door thanks to a complete package of size, willingness to take on contact, speed and an ability to make difficult grabs with his strong hands. Evan Spencer has also shown flashes of productivity, and he could be a nice addition to the rotation if Ohio State needs to throw another body in the mix.

New faces: The lack of depth at receiver was no secret, and Urban Meyer and his staff attacked that potential weakness on national signing day by loading up at the position and landing some of the fastest targets on their board to beef up the passing attack. Depending on how smooth the transition is for Jalin Marshall, Corey Smith and James Clark, the Buckeyes may have instantly turned a spot that could have been easily tripped up by a couple injuries into a group capable of moving on without missing a beat.

Recruiting trail: Brown could find himself in elite company if he leads the team in receptions for the third straight season as expected. But he’ll have to be replaced in the offseason, and while there are already candidates to fill that void on campus, the Buckeyes are chasing recruits at receiver with the same urgency they did a year ago to make sure the pipeline is full. Four-star commits Lonnie Johnson (Gary, Ind./West Side) and Terry McLaurin (Indianapolis/Cathedral) are already in the fold, and both bring the type of game-breaking speed Meyer so covets on the perimeter.

Flexibility: The Buckeyes are much more capable of spreading the ball around in the passing game this season, and neither Meyer nor offensive coordinator Tom Herman are shy about using every weapon available to them. That should take some of the pressure off Brown, but he and Devin Smith will still be the top attractions and favorite targets for Braxton Miller after another season of absorbing the playbook and developing physically. Brown, in particular, should benefit from his improved ability to make something happen after the catch, which figures to significantly improve his yardage total as a senior.

Notable numbers:

-- Brown certainly isn’t likely to match his 46-catch improvement from his sophomore year to his breakout junior campaign, but he does have room to build on his yardage. Criticized early last season by Meyer for not making defenders miss any tackles, Brown steadily improved but still finished the season averaging 11.1 yards per reception -- and boosting that was a top priority in the spring.

-- Devin Smith has proven he can strike from just about anywhere, but perhaps more important for the Buckeyes, he’s also been able to do it when the team needs him to deliver most. On his 10 touchdown grabs through two seasons, Smith has averaged a robust 39.3 yards on his scores -- and three of them have gone down as game-winners.

-- Devin Smith and Brown combined for 90 receptions last season, and while the Buckeyes might take that total again from the starters without much complaint, they’d definitely prefer it to account for a smaller percentage of the overall production. In all, the tandem made 56 percent of the receptions for the offense and only one other returning player finished with double-digit catches last year with Spencer’s 12.

Big question: How much help can the newcomers provide?

The Buckeyes can be reasonably certain they know what they’re getting out of Smith and Brown. They have plenty of optimism for the improvements Miller has made as a passer, and they also are confident in the combination at tight end with Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett capable of expanding the game plan through the air. But Ohio State could use at least one and probably two targets who either haven’t had a chance to shine yet or weren’t on campus a year ago to add some diversity, depth and danger to the WR unit. Thomas is a likely option moving into his sophomore campaign, but the three newcomers will also be watched closely this month to see if they’ll be able to jump right in that mix or if the Buckeyes will have to continue to lean heavily on the veterans.

Austin Ward | email

Ohio State/Big Ten reporter

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