- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Philly Brown could see the numbers and had watched enough game tape not to need any reminders about which area of his game most needed work.
The Ohio State coaching staff wasn’t going to let him off that easy, though.
In public through the media last season, coach Urban Meyer was cracking jokes and encouraging him to break a tackle once in a while.
When strolling through the practice facility within earshot of Zach Smith in the spring, his position coach made sure to raise his voice enough to reference his reception total compared to a relative lack of yardage and touchdowns.
And while the senior receiver suggested there wasn’t all that much criticism coming his way behind closed doors, the message was clear to Brown either way as he prepared for his final season with the Buckeyes. As the most reliable target on the perimeter, the ball was likely to keep coming his way -- as long as was able to start doing more with it once it was safely in his hands.
“I already knew it was something I had to work on after watching the film,” Brown said. “[Strength] coach Mickey [Marotti] and I sat down and watched it, identified the problems, so we took care of it this offseason, hit the weight room hard -- we got it done, so it should be better.
“It was a couple things [wrong], but I’ll keep them to myself. They’re secrets.”
Brown might be keeping the corrections under wraps for now, but the main issues have been pretty much out in the open dating back to spring practice as he and Smith went to work trying to turn his pile of receptions into a mountain of yards.
He finished last season leading the unbeaten Buckeyes in both catches and yardage, but his 60 receptions produced only 669 yards -- the latter a number teammate Devin Smith nearly matched with half as many grabs.
Clearly there’s a difference in roles between the targets, with Smith stretching the field and hauling in deep balls and Brown often getting the ball at or near the line of scrimmage. But it was a banner reception day like Brown’s 12-catch performance at Michigan State that underscored the lack of spark the Buckeyes were looking for, with that career-high haul not even giving Brown a 100-yard outing thanks to a paltry average of 7 yards per catch.
“I mean, Philly was the first to say it,” Zach Smith said. “However many catches he had, the fact that he didn’t have 1,000 yards receiving, he even said, ‘That’s a joke.’ What are we talking about? He’s much better than that.
“He had some bad habits about how he controlled his body in open space, especially when you’re carrying the football and you only have one arm to really balance yourself. It’s something that just wasn’t one of his strengths. ... But the natural physical ability is there, and it always has been.”
The Buckeyes have seen it up close, though last year the brightest flashes showed up on a pair of electrifying punt returns for touchdowns instead of in the passing game.
And while Ohio State certainly didn’t have much to complain about with the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten, getting Brown to unlock the same ability he showed while slicing through tacklers on special teams as a receiver would be a significant boost for a spread attack trying to improve dramatically in the passing game.
“He better be a dude, a really, really good one,” Zach Smith said. “He has shown that he’s going to be, we’ve just got to keep taking steps so that by Aug. 31 [against Buffalo] he is a guy, I mean a real one.
“When he is, he’s not a second-team All-Big Ten receiver. He better be way better than that.”
The coaches haven’t been shy about pointing out the path to reach that level.
And while Brown might be keeping some specifics of his offseason work a secret for now, the proof will be all out on display soon.
“I’m just trying to be better,” Brown said. “Never trying to be the same, I’m just trying to be way better than I was last year, that’s all.
“Going back to the film and seeing how many yards were left out on the field that we could have taken advantage of ... we worked on that. It should be good.”
Whether Brown was paying close attention or not, that improvement also should give his coaches something else to talk about.
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