- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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With national signing day in the books, the next big date on the Ohio State calendar as it continues working toward an encore for an undefeated season in 2013 is spring practice. Before those workouts begin, BuckeyeNation will take a look at each position to see where the roster is at -- and where it's going.
Who's back: A valuable, versatile piece of the offense is gone, and Jake Stoneburner's size and ability to line up all over the formation will be missed. But the hybrid receiver-tight end didn't exactly produce as often as the Buckeyes were anticipating in his lone season in Urban Meyer's offense, and the two guys who truly carried the load in the passing game are both coming back and poised to take another step forward after upping their production last fall. Corey "Philly" Brown showed marked improvement from the beginning of the year to the end, and Devin Smith put his chemistry with Braxton Miller and knack for clutch receptions on display much more often as a sophomore. Behind those starters, Evan Spencer and rising sophomore Michael Thomas started gaining more trust from the coaches at the end of the perfect season and could start pushing for more work in the spring.
New face: The cavalry is coming, but it hasn't arrived yet. The Buckeyes made speedy weapons at the skill positions a top priority on the recruiting trail, and the haul they landed could easily impact the spread offense right away with hype building already for Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson, James Clark and Corey Smith. But none of those guys will be on the field during spring workouts, leaving critical practice reps for the returning veterans.
Projected spring depth chart: Brown's role could shift a bit to feature more work in the slot, a role that running back Jordan Hall or reserve Chris Fields could potentially play as well, as the Buckeyes tinker with matchups and formations. Spencer could then move into a starting role at the 'Z' spot where Brown was listed a year ago, with Smith backed up again by Thomas at the other spot.
Numbers game: The approach was about as different as could be, but in terms of yardage, Smith and Brown wound up essentially in the same place. Brown vastly improved his number of receptions as a junior, going from 14 to 60 and claiming the team lead by doubling Smith's total. But Smith's ability to streak behind defensive backs and track down the ball produced almost as twice as much yardage per catch as Brown averaged -- with the two combining in the end for 90 catches, 1,287 yards and 9 touchdowns.
One to watch: Early enrollment gave Thomas a jump on learning the system and a stage to showcase his skills in the spring game a year ago, with the latter in particular taking the buzz about his potential to another level after wowing the crowd at Ohio Stadium with 12 receptions for 131 yards. That performance perhaps put some unfair expectations on a true freshman, and he wasn't ready to meet them in his first campaign while finishing with 3 catches for 22 yards. But those extra workouts a year ago and another full slate of offseason conditioning could start paying some dividends heading into his sophomore season, and setting the table with productive workouts in March and April will be critical with more competition for playing time on the way.
He said it: "I think we were built a little differently. But to say we never had talent, I never said that. We maybe didn't have the home-run hitter [with] explosiveness, open-space players on offense, but you know what, some guys really grew up and did a good job for us. 'Philly' Brown did a nice job, but we don't have enough. When you're running an offense where you want three or four split guys all the time and you only have one or two, that's not enough. I think we're starting to get a little bit of that built up." -- Meyer on signing day
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