- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- All of the elements were in place once again, and a familiar scene was playing out along the right sideline.
The route didn’t seem to call for anything all that extraordinary for Devin Smith, who just needed to streak up the sideline, burn a defensive back with his elite speed and then take advantage of all the green grass that was likely to be in front of him on the way to yet another score.
Just like usual, the play designed behind him was perfect; his quickness was too much for the California secondary. All that was left for the Ohio State receiver to focus on was the simple stuff.
“I just make sure I catch it,” Smith said. “Catch it and then run as fast as I can.”
Few players are ever able to run him down, and Cal had no chance two weeks ago as he turned on the afterburners on a 90-yard play that stands as the longest in school history. And with that recent example now added to an expanding résumé, it’s starting to seem like the further the Buckeyes are from the end zone, the more likely Smith is to find it.
If former Ohio State legend Cris Carter was known for only catching touchdowns, Smith is fast becoming the target who only produces long ones.
“I mean, 41 yards a touchdown catch is kind of astounding,” wide receivers coach Zach Smith said. “But it doesn't really surprise me -- he's a very talented vertical threat.”
Smith is proving that with regularity now, but he only showed glimpses of it early in his career with the program. In fact, the junior is coming up on an anniversary of sorts with Wisconsin coming to Ohio Stadium for a Top 25 showdown on Saturday night. It was two years ago in the meeting of the budding rivals that Smith turned in the first of what has become his trademark receptions.
Sneaking behind the secondary with the game on the line, Braxton Miller rolled to his right, found Smith uncovered deep down the field and hooked up with him for a 40-yard game-winning touchdown. Then a true freshman, Smith only had three scores to his credit at that point, and they had gone for a combined total of 63 yards. Since then, Smith has seven more touchdowns that have covered at least 40 yards, and he’s collectively posted an average score that has gone 41.5 yards on his 14 career trips to the end zone -- a number that only slightly dipped thanks to a measly 5-yard snag last week in a blowout of Florida A&M.
“In the course of the season so far, they’ve hit me on some shorter routes, some intermediate routes and things like that,” Smith said. “And this past Saturday, having a one-on-one matchup and going up and getting the ball, I think that really showed I could be a good asset to this offense in the red zone.
“I wasn’t really aware of [the touchdown average], but that’s a pretty good statistic to know. A lot of it has to do just with speed, but I think the most important component for me is just running good routes, and I’ll do whatever it takes to help this team win.”
The Buckeyes have done that every time he’s caught a touchdown pass in his career, obviously including that notable bomb against the Badgers.
But even his relatively short score last week on an athletic reception in the left corner of the end zone offered more evidence of how difficult it's becoming to defend Smith, since he didn’t have a bunch of space behind a cornerback to threaten to pull away from him with pure speed. With clearly improved reliability with his hands, crisper route-running skills and freakish leaping ability, Smith put the rest of the complete package on display with a grab that showcased some smaller ball to go with all his home runs.
“I think he's become effective in pretty much in any part of the field,” Zach Smith said. “But a guy like that with the vertical threat, where corners really have to honor him vertically, they see that on film. So once he has that threat, there is that fear of getting beat deep and everything else opens up.
“He can run, he has straight-line [speed], and the steps he's made have been more at becoming a receiver as opposed to just a deep-threat guy. So he's improved, but he's been a dynamic vertical threat since I got here.”
If the second-year assistant still needs confirmation of that, the Badgers can surely offer it as one of Smith’s first victims deep down the field. Now that he’s showing signs of working in tighter spaces as well, there might not be anywhere on the field that’s safe.
4dJosh Moyer and Dan Murphy