Ohio State Buckeyes: Zach Smith

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The spring season's star was back on a familiar stage, again stealing the show.

A few thousand fans crowded into Ohio State’s indoor practice facility on Saturday, and, as he’s done three camps running, Michael Thomas gave them all something to remember and rave about.

The redshirt sophomore stuck out one hand in the corner of the end zone, plucked a pass out of the air as if the football and his glove were made of velcro and started a team-wide celebration with yet another entry on his spring highlight reel.

[+] EnlargeMichael Thomas
AP Photo/Al BehrmanMichael Thomas is doing his spring thing again. He made a memorable catch during a scrimmage on Saturday.
For now, Thomas has almost nothing of note on his résumé after the month of April in his career with the Buckeyes, failing twice in a row to build on head-turning workouts and jaw-dropping glimpses of his athleticism at wide receiver. But in the midst of a third productive camp and coming off a surprising redshirt season, though, Thomas might finally be ready to carry over some of his springtime success into the fall.

“I just took last season like a developmental year,” Thomas said. “That motivates me more, motivates me every day.

“We’ve been waiting for spring to come around since we knew we were probably going to redshirt. Now it’s here and we’re going hard and competing every day.”

Thomas has had a knack for winning those battles in the spring, and it has only made his lack of production when it really counts all the more puzzling.

As an early enrollee in 2012, Thomas dominated the spring game with a team-high 12 catches, a number that was even more notable with the Buckeyes coming off a season in which no player made more than 14 receptions.

Last spring, Thomas seemed to always have the edge on the practice field during open workouts, using his 6-foot-3, 203-pound frame to overpower defensive backs on intermediate routes or flashing his speed and ball skills to make plays deep down the field.

But his first season in 2012 ended with just three receptions. Last fall, a disappointing training camp in August prompted the coaching staff to bench him for the opener, a decision that ultimately sent him down the path to a season on the sideline.

“He didn’t have a great fall camp,” wide receivers coach Zach Smith said. “So, I didn’t play him in the first game, mainly because I wanted him to realize that we’re not going to go a whole season with him preparing the way he prepared, performing the way he performed in practice. That’s just not what we expect here. After that game, kept going, he kept growing, but we didn’t want to waste a year on Mike just to catch 12 balls or 15.

“We weren’t going to put him in the game unless we had to, so we saved a year, but he got a year of experience preparing to play.”

That extra year might come in handy down the road for the Buckeyes when or if Thomas does end up tapping into his outsized potential, and he certainly had plenty of chances to build himself into a dangerous target while working against future NFL cornerback Bradley Roby on the practice field last season.

Ohio State has been able to put up prolific, historic offensive statistics in the past two seasons while leaning heavily on its rushing attack and not getting quite as much balance from the passing game as the coaching staff would like, an issue Urban Meyer has made well known he’d like to fix heading into his third season with the program. A lack of depth at receiver isn’t solely to blame for that, much like a rough training camp that produced a redshirt for Thomas wasn’t the only factor that limited some of the options and production on the perimeter.

But Thomas has the ability to help solve both problems at the same time. He’ll just have to move his next encore performance up to the fall.

“I just had to reach out a little bit, extra effort, one-handed catch, it hit my glove and stuck to it,” Thomas said after adding another spring touchdown catch to his collection. “There are still a lot of things I have to work on, but we’re getting better every day.”

Small crowds have had a chance to see that improvement in the spring. But the Buckeyes are still waiting to see him show it off to a packed stadium when it truly matters.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Think back to the most memorable catches over the last couple seasons at Ohio State.

Was it a clutch touchdown grab that tipped the scales in a close game down the stretch? Devin Smith probably caught it.

[+] EnlargeDevin Smith
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Smith's consistency needs to match his big-play ability.
How about a bomb, something that covered at least 40 yards and provided an instant jolt of offense? Odds are Smith was the guy streaking down the field and celebrating in the end zone.

Maybe it was a jaw-dropping, head-turning display of aerial athleticism, probably resulting in points for the Buckeyes? No doubt, Smith is again popping into mind.

Perhaps no player short of Braxton Miller has done more than Smith to stock the highlight reel for the Buckeyes since the spread offense arrived and the passing game started its rapid evolution out of the Stone Age. And even if he never has another chance to reach up to snag another one-handed reception against tight coverage, Smith has already supplied enough memories to fill several hype videos or decorate the walls of the practice facility with photos of his scoring exploits.

But for all those unforgettable moments, there have also been a few games where it’s hard to even remember Smith was on the field at all. And rather than duplicate all the dizzying highs heading into his senior season, the emphasis now is instead on eliminating the lows.

“I look back at some of the plays I’ve made, I have made some plays that people will remember forever,” Smith said. “But inside me, I still feel like there’s more that I need to give.”

The Buckeyes are more than willing to take whatever else Smith has to offer, particularly with leading receiver Philly Brown no longer in the picture and coach Urban Meyer still stressing the importance of balancing his high-powered rushing attack with more contributions from the passing game.

Smith is the logical choice to lead that effort on the heels of a 44-catch, 660-yard, eight-touchdown season in 2013, another campaign that featured go-ahead scores, game-changing strikes from long distance and impressive catches while simultaneously fighting off gravity and cornerbacks. But what the Buckeyes need now is the kind of consistency and reliability Brown provided by making multiple receptions in every outing but two, something Smith struggled to offer late in the season a year ago while catching just 6 balls in the final five games.

“Obviously with some game plans, there are times when it’s going away from me, putting the ball in Philly’s hands or keeping it with Braxton and Carlos [Hyde], things like that,” Smith said. “But I think one thing that kind of hurt me a little bit was towards the end I was banged up a little bit and not making as many plays in practice, and that held me back from getting plays in a game.

“I’m just making sure I take care of my body every single day and make plays that I can, act like practice is a game. If I do that here and perfect that, I think it will carry over to the season.”

Part of that process during the spring involves challenging Smith as if he were in the middle of the season, putting him in different scenarios designed to take him out of his comfort zone and forcing him to overcome a few hurdles.

Notably, the Buckeyes have moved him all over the formation as part of the ongoing development of his game, having him spend one full day away from his starting "X" position while working at "Z," then lining him up at other times in the slot to continue keeping him on his toes and finding a way to tap into his potential more regularly.

“The biggest thing we’ve had to do is present adversity to him, moving positions and moving him around, creating those hard situations because he’s great when things are great,” receivers coach Zach Smith said. “When things are hard, that’s when he needs to shine. He’s been inconsistent in that.

“But so far, so good.”

That, of course, is as true for Smith’s career as a whole as it is his development this spring. But he isn’t done with either quite yet.

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 28, 2014
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Hope your bracket is faring better than mine ...

OSU will be hot shopping spot for ADs

November, 6, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The holiday shopping seemingly starts earlier every year.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer, Luke Fickell
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsWith Ohio State's success, Urban Meyer may have to part with some of his top assistants, including Luke Fickell.
Perhaps the most popular store for athletic directors who are looking to put a new football coach under the tree isn’t even officially open for business. However, there's already one who is reportedly banging on the door trying to capitalize on a head start.

The two-year commitments Urban Meyer asked of his first coaching staff at Ohio State will soon be filled. The assistants have all added 21 wins without a loss to their most current résumés. The No. 4 Buckeyes are on pace for another division title, in line for a spot in the Big Ten title game and still jockeying for a bid to compete for the crystal football.

So, as the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported on Tuesday that Florida Atlantic is targeting defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, it’s a safe bet that some of the hottest coaching toys on the market are at Ohio State. And after keeping them all to himself after last season's undefeated campaign, the signs are already there that Meyer will need to restock his shelves this offseason.

“We had four guys that had some people trying to discuss head-coaching opportunities for them,” Meyer said in the spring. “And I hope that happens for some of them, but I’m kind of glad it doesn’t happen after just one year.

“I always ask for just a two-year commitment. I think that’s fair.”

Across the board, Meyer’s first staff has provided just about everything he could have hoped for when he took over the program, including sticking around and turning down a few offers a year ago.

As the team appears to be getting stronger every week, the benefits for the Buckeyes are obvious. OSU is thriving on the continuity and familiarity that comes with the opportunity to spend more than one season with a position coach, coordinator or simply a playbook. They’ve proven more than capable of making successful in-game adjustments -- whether it was altering the approach defensively against Iowa after seeing a new formation or tweaking an offensive game plan to feature the brutal running style of Carlos Hyde more as the passing attack struggled at Northwestern -- there are trademarks of a group of coaches and players all on the same page.

Returning for another season with the Buckeyes wasn’t solely a perk for the program, of course. For all the attention Ohio State got in 2012 while going unbeaten, it didn’t win a national title and couldn’t even play for the conference crown. Adding those to a list of accomplishments can certainly help a potential candidate stand out when business really picks up for athletic directors in the coming months.

And the Buckeyes will have no shortage of options depending on what a potential suitor is looking for, from innovative offensive minds to a pair of defensive guys with previous experience as interim coaches.

Tom Herman’s work with quarterback Braxton Miller and Ohio State’s eye-popping offensive numbers will surely make him one of the top targets among coordinators. Ed Warinner’s results with the offensive line while serving as the co-offensive coordinator and his background in multiple styles of attacks could be appealing as well.

Fickell has interviewed for at least one major program in the past, and Ohio State’s surging defense may well get him cracks at jobs bigger than the one Florida Atlantic might offer. Everett Withers has long been respected around the country for his ball-hawking defenses, and the Buckeyes have only helped him add to that reputation.

The rest of the assistants have enhanced their profiles as well, with Mike Vrabel’s young defensive line zipping through the learning curve and Zach Smith’s receivers operating at a much higher level this fall, just to name two.

It may turn out that keeping most of his assistants around becomes an even bigger priority for Meyer if the inquiries start flooding in for his coordinators. But, for now, two-year engagement isn’t over, and there’s still plenty of work to be done.

But if the Buckeyes end up doing what they planned on by the end of the season, Meyer will surely have no problem passing on a glowing recommendation.

“The one negative thing about success and hiring good coaches is that they’re hot items,” Meyer said after last season. “If I had five guys that people never call me and want to hire them, that means I’ve probably got bad coaches.”

With the shopping season apparently underway and the Buckeyes still rolling, Meyer had better make sure his phone is fully charged.

Devin Smith gives OSU long-range weapon

September, 25, 2013
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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.

[+] EnlargeSmith
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesDevin Smith made Ohio State history with his 90-yard score against Cal.
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.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Zach Smith won't shield his unit from criticism, and it received plenty for the issues of a struggling passing attack a year ago.

But for all the problems that the Ohio State receivers coach is quick to point out, he's not going to make them shoulder all the blame, either.

The pass protection was far from perfect, and the Buckeyes allowed too many sacks. Braxton Miller is a truly unique weapon at quarterback, but his decision-making and accuracy as a sophomore left plenty to be desired. As dominant as the rushing attack was last season, perhaps the tailbacks could have been a bit sharper at picking up blitzing defenders when Ohio State was trying to air it out.

Those areas of improvement aren't pointed out to absolve the receiving corps, and neither Smith nor coach Urban Meyer have ever sugarcoated their feelings about a group they have publicly labeled as "dysfunctional" and a "clown show."

It does, however, offer a reminder that it takes more than crisp route-running and steady hands to put on an aerial show. But based on the lack of jokes at their expense during training camp, it appears the wideouts have done everything they can to avoid coming in at No. 1 on the list of things holding back the spread offense.

Philly Brown
Greg Bartram/US PresswireCorey "Philly" Brown led Ohio State with 60 catches in 2012.
"Every group had their deficiencies in that area, and the wide receivers probably most contributed," Smith said. "But there’s been definite commitment to improving that.

"I think it’s been a long process. It’s not something that could have happened overnight, and I think where we’re at right now, ‘OK, we’ve taken a step, we’re no longer dysfunctional -- now let’s go be the best receiver unit in the country.’ "

That goal would have been almost unthinkable for the Buckeyes a year ago, when the bar was set almost comically low following a 2011 season in which it took just 14 catches to lead the team.

The transition to a more wide-open offense did yield instant results, with Philly Brown pushing the team-leading reception total out to 60, Devin Smith providing a deep threat capable of striking from anywhere and Evan Spencer showing flashes at times of becoming a reliable third option. But all of them had soft spots in their games, most notably a lack of explosiveness after the catch from Brown and occasional lapses in focus from Devin Smith that led to some easy drops. And there also wasn't much depth to speak of behind them, with only four players cracking double-digits in receptions as the offense skewed heavily toward the rush.

The receivers are intent on changing that this year. And aside from more polished play from top veterans such as Brown and Smith, the Buckeyes are getting vastly improved play on the practice field from Spencer, have skilled and developing weapons in Michael Thomas and Chris Fields waiting in the wings and a fresh handful of talented newcomers with the type of speed Meyer so covets on the edges.

Miller's talent as a rusher and a deep stable of rushers still might keep the Buckeyes from becoming a team that can perfectly balance the ratio between the run and pass. But the development of the receivers this fall can certainly help it come closer than the 2-to-1 mark it posted last season, even if the responsibility isn't all on them.

"I think it’s natural development," Zach Smith said. "A year ago, I told everyone that it was a young group that needed to grow up and develop and get better, and that’s something they’ve done. Fast-forward a year: They had trials, tribulations, had hard times, great successes, and they have grown and learned from mistakes to the point that now they’re able to be a mature group, able to use those learning points in the past to make sure they don’t happen again and to grow from them.

"I’m pleased with the growth from the last year, and now we’ve got to keep going. ... The next step we have to take is the consistent domination as a group. When we take that step, I’ll be really pleased."

And if they do make it, the receivers can share some of the glory the same way they have the blame.

Philly Brown eager to find more yards

August, 16, 2013
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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.

[+] EnlargePhilly Brown
Greg Bartram/US PresswirePhilly Brown knows 11.2 yards per catch won't cut it in 2013.
“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.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Notes and observations from a scorching afternoon on Friday at Ohio State, which hosted its final one-day camp of the summer and provided a stage for a handful of standout performers.

Still smoking: An offer from the Buckeyes had already been extended, so Eric Glover-Williams (Canton, Ohio/McKinley) wasn't running for that.

Despite his competitiveness, the junior athlete wasn't looking for bragging rights over the rest of the campers on Friday, either.

Rising stock: Michael Thomas

April, 24, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- With spring practice in the books and Ohio State heading into its offseason conditioning program, BuckeyeNation is looking at the players who boosted their stock with the program the most during those 15 invaluable workouts. The offense will go first this week, followed by a handful of defenders who will be in line for heavy workloads this fall as well.

Michael Thomas, Eli Apple
AP Photo/Al BehrmanMichael Thomas hauled in a touchdown pass in traffic in the spring game.
No. 3: Michael Thomas

  • Who: The sophomore receiver still might not be a finished product and he didn't leave camp with a claim to a starting job, but there's little doubt that Thomas is trending upward after a season largely spent on the sideline adapting to the college level and the responsibilities at his position. The Buckeyes have two veterans they can feel pretty confident about in Philly Brown and Devin Smith, who are both back and improved as well. Thomas is making a push for an expanded role thanks to an ability to make tough catches, run sharper routes and an apparent ability to make catches despite contact against tight coverage. At a minimum, the spread offense should include more targets in the rotation even before the new wave of signees report this summer.
  • Spring progress: Thomas turned in a buzz-worthy camp in the 2012 spring practice as an early enrollee, but he certainly wasn't prepared to live up to the hype as he struggled to get a grasp on the playbook last fall. With the benefit of a full year to get acclimated and up to speed, his natural skills were put on display with more regularity during open workouts in March and April. Thomas was able to adjust to balls on deep routes and consistently haul them in with his strong hands. Passes that might have been somewhat off target on intermediate routes were snagged thanks to his size and reach, and with his weight up close to 200 pounds, Thomas wasn't pushed around by cornerbacks who bumped, and he more than held his own in one-on-one passing drills during an impressive series of workouts.
  • Jockeying for position: Brown and Smith are comfortably at the top of the depth chart, just as they were at the end of last season. And while the addition of a handful of potential playmakers from the recent signing class will add to the competition in training camp, the battle for time is already heating up thanks to the emergence of Chris Fields, some development by Evan Spencer and the improved comfort of Thomas. Fields was given the third starting position coming out of spring, but Thomas isn't likely to fade away in the fall, as he did as a freshman.
  • He said it: "I mean, he developed, he came along. He was a true freshman, and he wasn’t as good as I hoped he was going to be or as good as he hoped he was going to be. But the best thing that happened to him was having to deal with success and failure, and having to go into an offseason saying, ‘My God, I was nowhere near where I want to be or where this offense for my head coach needs me to be.’ It really fueled the last six months." -- wide receivers coach Zach Smith, on Thomas
  • Closing number: The second spring game for Thomas wasn't quite as explosive as the first, but he still put his mark on the exhibition with another productive outing during a pass-heavy afternoon. Thomas finished with seven catches for 79 yards, including a long of 31, and had a touchdown reception that highlighted his ability to come down with the football in traffic.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There are two standards at the disposal of Zach Smith, and they’re equally effective at getting the attention the Ohio State wide receivers coach needs from his players.

If he wants, Smith can point to the bar that historically has been set so high by the Buckeyes who have come through the program, a pitch that works as both a motivator for players on campus and a recruiting tool off it.

“There have been seven first-rounders since 1995, more than anyone else in the country,” Smith said. “I don’t think there’s been a university in the last 17 years that has produced wideouts like this place has.”

If the promise of the NFL isn’t enough, Smith can simply refer to the resume of the head coach, Urban Meyer, and the value he places on receivers in his spread offense, and the type of numbers his system can produce for those capable of playing in it.

The trick to becoming a first-round draft pick can be just as challenging as learning all of the responsibilities in Ohio State’s playbook. Neither happens overnight or even in a full calendar year, but heading into their second season under Meyer and Smith, the Buckeyes at least appear to have a better grasp on the latter.

(Read full post)

Final countdown: Impact player No. 5

August, 27, 2012
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Training camp is over and game preparations have begun. The torture of the offseason is nearly over, and Ohio State's first game under Urban Meyer is closing in. Leading up to the opener against Miami (Ohio), BuckeyeNation will count down the 10 players that figure to have the biggest impact on Meyer's first campaign, rolling along with a veteran who could line up anywhere on offense.

No. 5

JAKE STONEBURNER
    [+] EnlargeJake Stoneburner
    Greg Bartram/US PresswireJake Stoneburner will line up at several positions this fall for Ohio State.

  • POSITION: Hybrid wide receiver/tight end
  • BASICS: The senior can still block in the running game at tight end if needed at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, but his route-running, reliable hands and mobility also make him a potential matchup nightmare for opponents as a wideout.
  • BY THE NUMBERS: Stoneburner had an uncanny ability to turn his receptions into touchdowns last season, finding the end zone seven times while sharing the team lead with 14 catches for Ohio State's underwhelming passing attack.
  • OPPORTUNITY FOR IMPACT: Both Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman have experience turning an athletic tight end into a weapon all over the field, and they have grand plans for Stoneburner. The senior could line up as a traditional tight end or he could slide out to the slot. He could line up in the backfield or get isolated on the perimeter. There doesn't appear to be a limit to what Stoneburner might do in the new spread offense, and he figures to have no shortage of changes to influence what the Buckeyes do with the football.
  • HE SAID IT: "Jake is a guy that is playing wide receiver right now, but he can do tight end things and fullback things. To say that he was a 280-pound, on-the-line tight end ever -- we’re all joking. He’s still doing some things for us, and he’s always been an athletic, receiving tight end. That kid is naturally gifted in the throw game and he’s got the body type and the ability level to do things in the run game. Not a whole lot changed, he’s just playing more receiver because that’s probably his strength right now." -- wide receivers coach Zach Smith

Final countdown: Impact player No. 7

August, 25, 2012
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Training camp is over and game preparations have begun. The torture of the offseason is nearly over, and Ohio State's first game under Urban Meyer is closing in. Leading up to the opener against Miami (Ohio), BuckeyeNation will count down the 10 players that figure to have the biggest impact on Meyer's first campaign, continuing with a wide receiver looking to make an impact in the spread offense.

No. 7

COREY "PHILLY" BROWN
  • POSITION: Wide receiver
  • BASICS: A bit banged up in the spring, the junior wasn't able to really show off his speed and playmaking ability on the perimeter for the new coaching staff. At full strength, the 6-foot, 186-pounder has turned heads with his quickness and earned the designation from Urban Meyer as the No. 1 wideout on the roster.
  • BY THE NUMBERS: Like the other returning targets, Brown doesn't have the most extensive resume -- but he did tie for the team lead in catches as a sophomore. Over two seasons, he's got 22 receptions to his credit for 310 yards with a pair of touchdowns.
  • OPPORTUNITY FOR IMPACT: The desire to find playmakers at receiver in the new spread offense has been well documented, and Meyer appears to have found a couple that he likes in August. Brown has put himself at the top of the list, and he's also presented himself as an option for the hybrid pivot position with his elusive ability as a runner in the open field. How often the Buckeyes might use him in that role remains to be seen, particularly with Jordan Hall expected to fill it when he returns from injury after the first couple games. But Brown figures to see the ball plenty in the passing game, and he's in line to easily surpass the 14 grabs he had last year.
  • HE SAID IT: "‘Philly’ Brown, he’s done an unbelievable job, he’s a different player really than he was in the spring. He was hurt in the spring, so I probably didn’t have an opportunity to see the 100 percent ‘Philly’ Brown, but he’s 100 percent right now and he looks pretty good. ... Really, 'Philly' has come back and now you see what I hoped to see in the spring when he was about 80 percent." -- wide receivers coach Zach Smith
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Movers and shakers as identified by the offensive members of the Ohio State coaching staff that met with the media after practice on Friday morning.

RUNNING BACKS

Stan Drayton won't have his projected starter heading into the season opener in just more than two weeks, but the next guy on the list for the running backs coach has embraced the opportunity and established himself as a viable option in place of Jordan Hall.

That's a far cry from how Drayton viewed Carlos Hyde previously, and a positive development for the Buckeyes in the backfield.

  • "Night and day. I didn’t coach Carlos last year, I coached those wide receivers, and with kind of side vision, I thought he was a little lazy as a football player, quite honestly. The one thing that he’s improved on is his approach to the game and his passion, energy level is through the roof right now. He has really escalated his value to this football team."Carlos Hyde is the one who has really stepped his game up. I mean, he really has. He’s answered the ball, he’s trying to become a leader of that group with Jordan out, and he’s really brought a physical component to his game right now that we all enjoy. He’s really set the bar for these younger backs." -- Drayton
TIGHT ENDS

Getting productive blocking from the tight ends in the running game wasn't much of a concern coming into training camp.

Position coach Tim Hinton expected to get that from sophomore Jeff Heuerman, who certainly has the size necessary to open some holes at 6-foot-6, 247 pounds.

But that big frame can also come in handy as a target in the passing game, and that's perhaps been the most notable development in Heuerman's repertoire so far in August.

  • "One thing with Jeff is he’s a very good point-of-attack blocker. He’s really, really good at point-of-attack blocking, but what he’s doing a lot better now is in the pass game. He understands the concepts better, he knows how to work off man routes, he knows how to work off zone routes better and he really is doing a much, much better job of understanding the pass game. His point-of-attack blocking he brings to the table very, very well, and we still have to do a better job in the perimeter of blocking in a little bit, but boy, he’s gotten better." -- Hinton
WIDE RECEIVERS

The physical tools are rare.

New Ohio State assistant Zach Smith noticed that right away in Tyrone Williams.

But they weren't translating on the field to anything more than average play at wide receiver, a position where the Buckeyes could certainly use the talent and athleticism Williams could potentially provide.

The sophomore isn't a finished product yet, and if Smith had been willing to name his likely starters for the opener on Sept. 1, Williams almost certainly wouldn't have been included.

But just within the last week, he's apparently started making a push to be included in the rotation in some capacity.

  • "I will tell you this much, Tyrone Williams this spring was about as average a player as you could have. Not because of talent level, but just because of how he practiced. He was a guy that really was raw, very raw, but I was talking to our strength coach, coach Mick, and the last five practices that kid is a completely different player than I’ve seen. He has really, really impressed everyone. The head coach, me, the staff -- now he’s still got a way to go, but he’s a kid that’s kind of drinking the Kool-Aid right now. He’s bought in and he is doing things he did not do the first six months we were here, and it’s very encouraging.
  • "He’s not there yet, but he’s coming. There’s not many physically gifted receivers that I’ve ever seen at any program or level that is as gifted as that kid, now. I mean, talk about a guy that has ability, he has it." -- Smith
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Quick hitters from the last two-a-day session for Ohio State during its training camp.

Adam Bellamy gone: Once a projected starter, Adam Bellamy now isn't even with the team.

The defensive lineman has been absent from workouts dating back more than a week, and position coach Mike Vrabel confirmed on Friday that the junior had left the program for personal reasons.

Vrabel didn't provide any additional details on the issue, but he did suggest a return was possible for a player who was listed as a bracketed starter at defensive end on the pre-camp Ohio State depth chart.

"Adam is working through some personal family matters right now," Vrabel said after practice. "When he gets that taken care of, we will welcome him back with open arms.

"We miss him in our room, and when Adam gets those things taken care of, he's going to be able to come back."

No timetable for a return was addressed, but Bellamy's presence would certainly add to the depth and experience of a unit that's expected to be among the best in the country this fall.

A 10-game starter in his career, he contributed 25 tackles with a sack for the Buckeyes up front a season ago.

Camp grind: Walking off the practice field on Friday morning, the Buckeyes still had one more workout to go to cap off the last two-a-day session of training camp.

Before the week started, the coaching staff had identified this week as the most pivotal and difficult the team would face. If it was a make-or-break moment for Ohio State, it appears to still be in one piece.

"I think the kids are surviving, and I think that’s an awesome thing," cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said. "I’ve coached for a long time, and I’ve never seen a training camp that is this tough, this hard, this physical, this demanding. It’s very exciting to watch how our kids respond. We have great kids.

"I don’t think you can break them, so I would hope that would mean that we’ve been made. I don’t think we’re done yet, we’re by no means a finished product, but our kids are working really hard."

Catching eyes: Zach Smith isn't ready to lock in his rotation yet.

The wide receivers coach wouldn't even commit to how many guys would be included in it when the season opens.

But based on his assessment of the personnel on Friday, there are at least two guys Smith will clearly be counting on as the Buckeyes work to improve a passing game that was anemic last season.

"Right now the guys that have had really solid fall camps are [Corey] 'Philly' Brown, he's done an unbelievable job, different player than he was in the spring," Smith said. " ... And then Devin Smith is a guy that's really come along.

"Really the group as a whole has taken the right steps. Are they there yet? No. But Practice 15, 16, they're about where they should be. We've got to get them right in the next week for the first game, but they're coming. I feel good about the guys we have and where we're going to be."

Bumps and bruises: There were already concerns about Joey O'Connor's knee heading into the training camp.

Surgery on it earlier this week has officially ended his season before it started.

The Buckeyes confirmed after practice that true freshman lineman had a knee operation on Monday that will keep him on the sideline all year and force him to redshirt.

Ohio State will soon find out whether it has landed another recruit from the 2013 class.

Wide receiver Taivon Jacobs (Forestville, Md./Suitland) told BuckeyeNation he will announce his decision at noon ET Thursday.

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