COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The offseason conditioning program is in full swing. Signing day has come and gone. Blink and spring practice will already be here.
Ohio State is less than a month away from getting back on the field and starting preparations for the 2014 season, and those days probably can't go by fast enough for a program coming off consecutive losses after a 24-game winning streak. To help pass the time, we're counting down the top five players who are facing critical springs, either because it's a turning point in their careers or the Buckeyes are counting heavily on them to fill vacant jobs as they try to get back in contention for a national title again in the fall. The journey continues today on the offensive perimeter.
No. 4: Michael Thomas, wide receiver
By the numbers: After surprisingly taking a redshirt during his second season on campus, the sophomore from Los Angeles still has only three catches and 22 yards to show for his career.
What’s at stake: With three years of eligibility remaining, there certainly would seem to be plenty of time left for Thomas to make an impact -- but the clock is actually ticking rather loudly already. The Buckeyes have stockpiled playmakers at wide receiver on the recruiting trail over the last couple years and will continue to do so as long as Urban Meyer is leading the program, and the competition for snaps is only going to get more heated moving forward. On top of that, there might be no better opportunity to move into the lineup than now with Philly Brown and Chris Fields both out of the picture. Brown, in particular, piled up catches and was as consistent a producer as the Buckeyes have had at the position in the spread offense, and filling that void will be at the top of the priority list in the spring. That’s been the time of year when Thomas has shined, showing off his ability to make difficult catches, regularly winning individual matchups with defensive backs and flashing his impressive athleticism. That hasn’t yet translated to the fall, and the Buckeyes would certainly benefit if it did after his third go-around.
Best-case scenario: Thomas can’t simply be plugged into the role Brown played in the last couple years because his strength and size at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds doesn’t really lend itself to jet sweeps and bubble screens. But the Buckeyes could use a reliable target in the intermediate passing game, a physical presence that can run routes over the middle of the field or create separation from defenders on third downs to help move the chains. Ohio State has no shortage of speedy options who can handle the rushing attempts from the perimeter or catch short passes near the line of scrimmage, but having a more natural, traditional wideout in the rotation could expand the arsenal and perhaps provide more balance to an offense that has skewed heavily toward the running game in the last two seasons.