Ohio State Buckeyes: Chris Fields

Ohio State spring predictions: No. 5

February, 24, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Preparations to end a two-game losing streak have already started for Ohio State, but the chance to make them with the pads on again after a two-month wait isn't over yet.

There's still more than a week left on that wait to hit the practice field again, and given the disappointing end to the 2013 season and the rigorous offseason conditioning program the Buckeyes have been going through, that time surely can't fly by quickly enough for them. We've already looked at players facing critical springs and key positional battles, and to count down these final few days before camp opens, now we'll make a handful of predictions for what should go down in March and April as Ohio State reloads for another run at a title in the fall.

[+] EnlargeMichael Thomas
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesCan Buckeyes wideout Michael Thomas have a breakout season in 2014?
No. 5: Michael Thomas has another big camp.

His springs have been almost unforgettable.

After a horrendous season for Ohio State's receivers in 2011 with no player recording more than 14 catches, Thomas burst on the scene and provided instant optimism for the future of the spread offense with 12 receptions in one memorable outing in the spring game before his freshman season. He followed that up with another prolific set of workouts a year ago, dominating individual drills, making difficult catches look routine and displaying some jaw-dropping athleticism on the perimeter.

His falls have provided almost nothing worth remembering at all.

There were only 3 receptions during that debut season in 2012. Last season, Thomas didn't even see the field and wound up taking a redshirt, though he actually did step on the turf during the brawl at Michigan for his only action of what at this time a year ago seemed likely to be a big sophomore campaign.

Now Thomas appears like he's already at a critical crossroads in his career with the Buckeyes, and both he and the coaching staff could use another head-turning spring from the talented wideout -- provided, of course, that the third time actually is charmed and becomes a springboard into the season.

Ohio State is losing leading receiver Philly Brown and another veteran in Chris Fields, leaving playing time available on the perimeter for an offense that will emphasize the passing game during camp in an effort to find more balance with the play calling. Thomas has a strong relationship with quarterback Braxton Miller, he has all the tools to be an effective weapon and by now there should be no uncertainty at all with the playbook after two seasons in the program. Last spring, Thomas overpowered defensive backs when challenged physically, he made acrobatic catches on deep throws and with his 6-foot-3, 202-pound frame, he presents an inviting target for intermediate routes to help move the chains.

More of the same should be expected leading into April and another exhibition opportunity to show his stuff. The next step will be finally building off it in August.

Players to watch in spring: No. 4

February, 11, 2014
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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.

[+] EnlargeMichael Thomas
AP Photo/Al BehrmanMichael Thomas has been a standout in the last two spring practices. It could be his time to shine in the fall in 2014 after redshirting last season.
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.
More than once this season I watched a Michigan State receiver make a great catch or a long run and thought: poor Andrew Maxwell.

Although quarterback Connor Cook deserves a lot of credit for MSU's offensive turnaround, he undoubtedly benefited from a wide receiver corps that cleaned up its act. Maxwell consistently fell victim to dropped passes, part of the reason why he completed just 52.5 percent of his attempts in 2012.

Here's a list of the Big Ten's most improved position groups this year:

Michigan State wide receivers: They were hard to watch in 2012, and their repeated drops proved costly for a team that lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. The overall numbers aren't much different in the two seasons, but Michigan State's wideouts all did a much better job of eliminating drops and making plays. Macgarrett Kings emerged as a threat and is tied with Tony Lippett for the team lead in receptions (39), while Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery emerged as big-play threats, averaging 15.4 and 16.4 yards per reception, respectively.

Minnesota offensive line: After an injury plagued 2012 regular season, the line made strides in the Texas Bowl and continued the momentum this fall. Minnesota improved its rushing average by 49 yards per game and racked up nine more rushing touchdowns. David Cobb eclipsed 100 rushing yards in five of his final six games, putting up 101 yards against Michigan State, the nation's top rush defense. Minnesota also tied for fourth in the league in fewest sacks allowed (21). A program that once churned out great offensive lines each year is getting back to its roots.

Iowa defensive line: Like Minnesota's offensive line, Iowa has a great tradition along the defensive front but endured some down years after an incredible run of NFL draft picks. The Hawkeyes' defensive line got back on track this season, and coach Kirk Ferentz labeled the line as the team's most improved unit. Drew Ott and Carl Davis emerged and Iowa improved to seventh nationally in total defense, 11th in scoring defense and 17th against the run.

Ohio State wide receivers: Urban Meyer blasted the group during spring practice last year and wasn't overly impressed with the results during the 2012 season. Only one receiver (Corey Brown) recorded more than 30 receptions and only two (Brown and Devin Smith) had multiple touchdown catches. Brown and Smith combined for 97 receptions and 18 touchdowns this season, and Chris Fields had six scores. Along with tight end Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State's passing game looked more efficient for much of the fall.

Illinois quarterbacks: I could pick almost every position group on offense for the Illini, who transformed under first-year coordinator Bill Cubit. But Nathan Scheelhaase's development truly stood out, as the senior led the Big Ten in passing by a wide margin with 3,272 yards, more than double his total from 2012. Scheelhaase completed two-thirds of his attempts and consistently stretched the field as Illinois finished 22nd nationally in pass offense.

Indiana running backs: The Hoosiers emphasized the run game during the offseason and saw the desired results during games. After finishing 10th in the league in rushing in 2012, Indiana improved to fourth, averaging more than 200 yards per game. Tevin Coleman emerged as a big-play threat and averaged 106.4 rush yards per game and a whopping 7.3 yards per carry. Teammate Stephen Houston wasn't too shabby, either, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.

Ohio State at the quarter pole

September, 24, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The plan needed some adjustments on the fly, but the end result as nonconference play wrapped up was exactly what Ohio State had in mind.

Braxton Miller was on the shelf for almost all of it, the defensive line had to deal with a couple notable injuries and the strength of schedule may have taken a hit due to circumstances the Buckeyes couldn’t control. But they are undefeated, about to get much healthier and might actually wind up being fresher than coach Urban Meyer might have hoped for after four games before kicking off the grind that is the Big Ten slate.

With the “preseason” out of the way, it’s time to take a look back at the superlatives from a stretch that pushed Ohio State’s winning streak to 16 games.

[+] EnlargeKenny Guiton
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteKenny Guiton is loved by the fans and respected by his teammates. Not bad for a backup QB.
Best game: The Buckeyes didn’t know until late in the week before flying to take on California if they’d have Miller available after he suffered his sprained knee the game before, and the flight itself provided some adversity for the roster. But the spread offense hummed right along with Kenny Guiton at the helm, jumping to an early lead with three touchdown passes from the backup in the first six minutes while the rebuilt defense forced a couple turnovers and survived the up-tempo onslaught from Cal in a comfortable 52-34 victory. The outing wasn’t perfect, but it did offer a glimpse at plenty of the things that could make the Buckeyes dangerous moving forward.

Best player: The competition wasn’t the stiffest on the schedule, but taking the best player in the Big Ten out of the lineup at least opens up the possibility that the playing field would level out a bit against teams like San Diego State and Cal. But Guiton did more than a serviceable impression of Miller in September, and he actually posted some Heisman-worthy individual numbers while filling in as the starting quarterback. Miller will be reclaiming his job when conference play opens Saturday, but Guiton set a handful of school records while piling up 664 passing yards, 186 rushing yards and 14 total touchdowns. He deserved the spotlight that was shining on him for a change.

Best performance: Guiton’s wildly productive outing at Cal captured most of the attention, but Jordan Hall’s work in the backfield was every bit as critical, both in the win and keeping a starting spot that he seemed to be just keeping warm for the suspended Carlos Hyde. The senior running back carried the ball 30 times, proving he could handle a full workload as he comes back from a medical redshirt season. He turned those touches into 168 yards and 3 touchdowns to give Meyer something to think about when Hyde’s three-game punishment expired.

Best surprise: The public criticism and talk of dysfunction at wide receiver has been put to rest for a while now, but the Buckeyes might actually have more depth on the perimeter than they were letting on during spring practice or training camp. Ohio State has nine different players averaging at least one reception per game, and although Devin Smith and Philly Brown are still pacing the group, guys like Evan Spencer, Chris Fields and freshman hybrid Dontre Wilson are giving the spread attack even more weapons to deploy.

Biggest disappointment: A physical test against Wisconsin will be the best gauge of how well Ohio State has rebuilt its defense, but there were a couple lapses on the road against high-octane Cal that caught the attention of the coaching staff and the returning veterans. The Buckeyes counted 16 missed tackles in that game and had a few communication issues in the secondary while giving up 34 points, though they’ve had little to complain about during the other three victories on the defensive side of the ball and rank No. 21 in the country in points allowed.
MADISON, Wis. -- No team defended Ohio State's offense and star quarterback Braxton Miller better than Wisconsin in 2012.

Don't believe me? Ask Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer.

He makes it clear that the Badgers caused the most problems for the Big Ten's top scoring offense and the league's top offensive player. Wisconsin held Miller to a season-low 97 pass yards, only 48 rush yards on 23 carries, zero touchdowns and a QBR of 39.5. Ohio State recorded only 15 first downs, 236 yards and 21 points against the Badgers, well below its season averages (21.4 first downs, 423.8 yards per game, 37.2 points per game).

The Buckeyes survived 21-14 in overtime, thanks mostly to their own defense.

"Obviously," Meyer said Monday, "they shut us down pretty good last year."

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/David StlukaThe Wisconsin defense made things difficult for Ohio State QB Braxton Miller when the teams met last season.
Wisconsin's defense tries to do it again Saturday night when it faces No. 4 Ohio State and Miller, who has been cleared to play following a sprained knee and likely will start. But the Badgers know they're facing a better and broader Ohio State offense this time. The Wisconsin defense also has been through some significant changes with first-year coach Gary Andersen and his staff.

Despite some glitzy numbers, Ohio State's offense was a one-man show for much of 2012, at least at the skill positions. A physical defense like Wisconsin could zone in on Miller and running back Carlos Hyde, without playing too much attention to the perimeter.

The Badgers have no such luxury this year as Ohio State boasts a much stronger supporting cast. Seven Ohio State players have at least seven receptions in the first four games, and four have multiple touchdown catches. Six different Buckeyes have rushed for touchdowns. The offense not only avoided a hiccup when Miller hurt his knee. It actually performed better with backup quarterback Kenny Guiton, who has won back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the week awards.

"It's grown," Wisconsin inside linebacker Chris Borland said of Ohio State's arsenal. "They've got a lot of speed at the skill positions and do a great job of getting them out on the edge. Number 1 [Dontre Wilson] is a player, a true freshman, they like getting the ball in his hands and use him with Number 2 [Jordan Hall]. The line does a good job, and with the weapons they have, they can take the top off, too.

"It's one of the best offenses in the country."

Wilson and Hall, who play the H-back position Meyer loves to feature in the offense, didn't play Wisconsin in 2012 as Wilson was still in high school and Hall was rehabbing a foot injury. Evan Spencer, Jeff Heuerman and Chris Fields played in last year's game at Camp Randall Stadium, but they're much bigger factors now.

Saturday likely will mark the first game Ohio State will have its full complement of weapons, as Miller returns alongside Hyde, who was suspended for the first three games. But Andersen doesn't expect many changes from a unit that is operating in fifth gear.

"They want to run the ball first," Andersen said. "They want to be very effective in the play-action run game. They want to have a run game that forces you to run sideways. …
You'll see some balls go out sideways to get you to run, get the defense tired, and they'll come back at you and start running the ball and trying to be physical with you.

"That's good coaching. It's the way it should be done."

Wisconsin has good coaching, too, especially on defense with Andersen and coordinator Dave Aranda. The Badgers are adjusting well to an aggressive 3-4 set, ranking sixth nationally in both yards allowed (243.3 ypg) and rush yards allowed (76.3 ypg), 10th in points allowed (10.5 ppg) and eighth in pass efficiency (86.1).

Opponents are averaging just 2.5 yards per rush and 4.9 yards per pass attempt against Wisconsin, which has yet to allow a passing touchdown.

"We've faced spread offenses three times this year," nose guard Beau Allen said. "We've done a good job of shutting down the run. Against [Arizona State], we gave up too many passing yards. How comfortable and familiar we've become practicing and defending spread teams goes a long way."

Ohio State's spread offense will test Wisconsin's young secondary, so the Badgers will lean on Allen, Borland and the rest of a veteran front seven.

"They're experienced, they're tough-minded, it means a lot to them and they prepare very well," Andersen said. "You're going to get their best shot every single week."

Although much has changed for both Wisconsin's defense and Ohio State's offense since last year's meeting, Allen and his teammates can draw upon their performance against the Buckeyes.

"That's going to be real helpful tape for us to watch," Allen said. "We have a lot of defensive players back, and being in that situation where we defended them so well is going to be beneficial for us this year, to emulate some of the stuff we did and use it again successfully."

Wisconsin's defense would gladly take a repeat performance Saturday night at Ohio Stadium -- with a different result on the scoreboard.

Fields becoming familiar name for OSU

September, 3, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The role of unlikely hero certainly has its perks.

There’s the lasting memory of a play that won’t be forgotten, along with the outpouring of admiration from a fan base that makes sure to show its appreciation and the simple fact that few people will ever know the rush of grabbing a game-winning touchdown.

[+] EnlargeFields
Jason Mowry/Icon SMIChris Fields, who had just 15 catches in his Ohio State career before this season, caught two touchdown passes against Buffalo.
But there is one part of the moniker that ensures it’s a bit of a backhanded compliment, since somebody like Ohio State receiver Chris Fields can’t come out of nowhere to save the day and a perfect record against Purdue unless he hasn’t been around to do much before then.

“It’s just a matter of opportunity,” Fields said. “You get an opportunity on the field to make a play, you make a play.

“A lot of people sleep on people sometimes, and it’s OK. You know, they’re going to wake up some day.”

The Buckeyes might still be suffering through nightmares without the late heroics of Fields a year ago against the Boilermakers, with an unbeaten season about to slip away if not for his ability to slide a pair hands just under a throw from Kenny Guiton for a score that set up a game-tying 2-point conversion in the final seconds.

Fields wound up with 3 catches in the overtime win, and his contributions were perhaps even more unexpected than Guiton’s off the bench since he came into the game without a reception and only made one more for the rest of the season. But after largely fading into the shadows after his bright, shining moment a year ago, the fifth-year senior has now put himself right back in the spotlight with a pair of touchdown catches in Saturday’s opening win over Buffalo.

And given the strong debut and his current place in the starting lineup at H-back, Fields is also in position to shed the element of surprise and instead just become a player No. 2 Ohio State can count on in big moments.

“One of the most improved players on the team,” coach Urban Meyer said. “He’s just playing his tail of and doing a lot of things for us, and he’s doing it all right, too.

“ ... I admire Chris Fields -- he wasn’t in the top 50 [on the roster] for playing a game last year, and he’s really the same talent.”

Fields has rarely had many chances to show it since signing with the Buckeyes, heading into his last season with the program with just 15 total receptions to his credit. Regardless of how important his score might have been against Purdue, that was the only touchdown of his career coming into the season.

But even before Fields found the end zone twice over the weekend, Meyer raved about the versatility the veteran provides both as a target in the passing game and potentially as a rusher at the hybrid H-back position all the way back in spring practice. And despite the addition of a handful of talented newcomers capable of filling that role, Fields hasn’t given the Buckeyes any reason to take his expanded role away so far.

“My mindset was, since I’m up there, I want to stay up there,” Fields said. “I mean, I feel like that [Purdue] play really wasn’t the spark. I feel like I’ve always had that confidence in myself, I never lost that confidence in myself throughout the years I’ve been playing this game. It’s just a matter of having the chance to be out there.

“I knew my time would be coming. It was just a matter of time.”

Fields showed up just before it all ran out on the Buckeyes in the bid for perfection a year ago.

Now he’s getting a chance to deliver earlier in the game and potentially much more often, which might require a different label as an unlikely hero transitions to something more permanent.

Like, for instance, “starter.”

“I had to change how I live my life a little bit and how I’ve focused in on a lot of things,” Fields said. “But when [Meyer] said I’d be able to be a starter this year, I’m taking full advantage of it.

“I’m not running, I’m not going anywhere else.”

OSU Helmet Stickers: Week 1

September, 1, 2013
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Jordan HallKirk Irwin/Getty ImagesJordan Hall rushed for a career-high 159 yards against Buffalo.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A look at the brightest stars in No. 2 Ohio State's 40-20 win over Buffalo to open the season on Saturday.

RB Jordan Hall: The Buckeyes were without their projected starter and the expected backup in the opener, but Hall made sure they weren't missed with the finest rushing performance of his career. The senior officially put his injury-plagued, redshirt season from a year ago in the rearview, bursting through holes up the middle for a pair of long touchdown runs on the way to 159 yards on 21 carries. Hall tacked on 14 more yards as a receiver as he continued to make his case for a leading role even when Rod Smith returns this week and Carlos Hyde comes back after his three-game suspension.

LB Ryan Shazier: Even while missing an extended portion of the game, the star junior was still the most effective defender the Buckeyes put on the field as the rebuilt unit made its debut. The linebacker battled through cramps to get in on seven tackles, including one for a loss, and also made a nice play in space to break up a pass over the middle. His value to the Buckeyes was only underscored when he wasn't on the field -- when his body wasn't right, the dropoff at linebacker was hard to ignore.

WR Chris Fields: An afterthought a year ago, the fifth-year senior made the most of the passes that came his way against Buffalo, turning two of his three catches into touchdowns and finishing with 53 yards receiving in a productive outing. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has praised the improvements Fields has made since April, naming him a starter coming out of the spring game. If the Buckeyes can continue to get him involved as they try to expand the passing game, the spread offense will become even more difficult to defend.
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.


Urban Meyer loves speed. He just can’t help himself.

What the two-time national champion picked up on Friday, when four-star athlete Curtis Samuel (Brooklyn, N.Y./Erasmus) became Ohio State’s 17th commitment in the 2014 class, will have Meyer smiling for the next four years. Erasmus assistant coach Ray Lizzi confirmed the commitment.

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Position preview: Wide receivers

August, 6, 2013
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Breaking down the Ohio State roster as training camp starts to heat up and the program turns its attention to the opener on Aug. 31 against Buffalo.

WIDE RECEIVERS

[+] EnlargeDevin Smith, Isaiah Lewis
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDevin Smith looks to get help from some newcomers this fall.
Top of the depth chart: Philly Brown and Devin Smith on the perimeter with Chris Fields in the slot

Next in line: Michael Thomas might not have been able to crack the starting lineup with another impressive spring camp, but the sophomore is certainly knocking loudly on the door thanks to a complete package of size, willingness to take on contact, speed and an ability to make difficult grabs with his strong hands. Evan Spencer has also shown flashes of productivity, and he could be a nice addition to the rotation if Ohio State needs to throw another body in the mix.

New faces: The lack of depth at receiver was no secret, and Urban Meyer and his staff attacked that potential weakness on national signing day by loading up at the position and landing some of the fastest targets on their board to beef up the passing attack. Depending on how smooth the transition is for Jalin Marshall, Corey Smith and James Clark, the Buckeyes may have instantly turned a spot that could have been easily tripped up by a couple injuries into a group capable of moving on without missing a beat.

Recruiting trail: Brown could find himself in elite company if he leads the team in receptions for the third straight season as expected. But he’ll have to be replaced in the offseason, and while there are already candidates to fill that void on campus, the Buckeyes are chasing recruits at receiver with the same urgency they did a year ago to make sure the pipeline is full. Four-star commits Lonnie Johnson (Gary, Ind./West Side) and Terry McLaurin (Indianapolis/Cathedral) are already in the fold, and both bring the type of game-breaking speed Meyer so covets on the perimeter.

Flexibility: The Buckeyes are much more capable of spreading the ball around in the passing game this season, and neither Meyer nor offensive coordinator Tom Herman are shy about using every weapon available to them. That should take some of the pressure off Brown, but he and Devin Smith will still be the top attractions and favorite targets for Braxton Miller after another season of absorbing the playbook and developing physically. Brown, in particular, should benefit from his improved ability to make something happen after the catch, which figures to significantly improve his yardage total as a senior.

Notable numbers:

-- Brown certainly isn’t likely to match his 46-catch improvement from his sophomore year to his breakout junior campaign, but he does have room to build on his yardage. Criticized early last season by Meyer for not making defenders miss any tackles, Brown steadily improved but still finished the season averaging 11.1 yards per reception -- and boosting that was a top priority in the spring.

-- Devin Smith has proven he can strike from just about anywhere, but perhaps more important for the Buckeyes, he’s also been able to do it when the team needs him to deliver most. On his 10 touchdown grabs through two seasons, Smith has averaged a robust 39.3 yards on his scores -- and three of them have gone down as game-winners.

-- Devin Smith and Brown combined for 90 receptions last season, and while the Buckeyes might take that total again from the starters without much complaint, they’d definitely prefer it to account for a smaller percentage of the overall production. In all, the tandem made 56 percent of the receptions for the offense and only one other returning player finished with double-digit catches last year with Spencer’s 12.

Big question: How much help can the newcomers provide?

The Buckeyes can be reasonably certain they know what they’re getting out of Smith and Brown. They have plenty of optimism for the improvements Miller has made as a passer, and they also are confident in the combination at tight end with Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett capable of expanding the game plan through the air. But Ohio State could use at least one and probably two targets who either haven’t had a chance to shine yet or weren’t on campus a year ago to add some diversity, depth and danger to the WR unit. Thomas is a likely option moving into his sophomore campaign, but the three newcomers will also be watched closely this month to see if they’ll be able to jump right in that mix or if the Buckeyes will have to continue to lean heavily on the veterans.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The wait is over. The season might not be here yet, but football is officially returning with the start of training camp on Sunday.

So after an offseason filled with questions about issues away from the field, the focus is once again back on the game itself. And these five topics will be worth monitoring as Ohio State reports for practice with the great expectations that come with being ranked No. 2 in the preseason poll.

Who is ready to lead?

Urban Meyer and Braxton Miller
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteUrban Meyer would love to see more vocal leadership from quarterback Braxton Miller this fall.
The Buckeyes don't take the captaincy lightly, and the value coach Urban Meyer has put on leadership has never been in doubt, particularly given how much credit the senior class received for the unbeaten season a year ago.

That makes identifying the right group of veterans to take that torch incredibly important for Meyer as he tries to light a path to the national championship, and while a couple of clear choices have emerged to be the face of the program, August will be critical in finding a few more veterans to set the tone.

Left tackle Jack Mewhort and safety Christian Bryant both have emerged as respected voices in the locker room, and Braxton Miller is also starting to find his footing as a more vocal presence. But a couple of other guys who had high hopes of being in that mix are currently or will be facing discipline for issues last month, which will make it pretty unlikely cornerback Bradley Roby or running back Carlos Hyde will be tabbed for a captaincy. Seniors like Philly Brown, Corey Linsley and C.J. Barnett could fill that void, and junior linebacker Ryan Shazier will need to set an example on defense as well.

What's the state of the passing attack?

Miller will always go under the microscope first, and the quarterback is usually the safest place to start in breaking down a passing game. But he certainly wasn't the only one responsible for some numbers through the air that weren't up to Meyer's standards last season.

Miller has worked hard on his footwork and should be much more at ease with the playbook entering his second year in the spread, but he could also use some better route-running, fewer drops and a bit more depth at wide receiver as Meyer looks for more diversity in his attack. Brown should provide some reliability after a productive junior season, and if he builds on the end of it where he consistently looked like a threat to explode after the catch, that alone will make the Buckeyes more dangerous. But he needs some help from freakishly athletic counterpart Devin Smith, rising sophomore Michael Thomas, veterans Chris Fields and Evan Spencer and a handful of newcomers to help keep the coverage honest.

Are the youngsters ready up front?

[+] EnlargeNoah Spence
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesAfter an eye-popping spring game, defensive end Noah Spence is eager to prove himself in games that count.
The spring game only dumped more gasoline on what was already a bonfire of hype, with Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington stealing the show by combining for seven sacks. But that was only an exhibition, and the Buckeyes are counting on production from those sophomores when it matters.

All four starters are gone from the defensive line a year ago, and while the interior spots are obviously more unsettled than the starting jobs at end, the pressure to perform and the attention will weigh more heavily on Spence and Washington. Both showed flashes of what they could do when given a chance as true freshmen a year ago, but they'll be expected to play like seniors now that John Simon and Nathan Williams are gone.

Can Taylor Decker keep the offensive line at the top of the Big Ten?

Ohio State has fewer concerns about its offensive line than just about any program in the country, and a unit with four returning starters who are all seniors might be more than any other staff would even think to wish for. But that didn't stop Meyer from doing a bit of hand-wringing in the spring about filling the fifth spot at right tackle, and he didn't leave practice in April officially settled on who that guy would be.

It's clear now that Decker will get the nod, and the oversized sophomore will have eyes on him throughout camp to ensure that he's capable of seamlessly replacing Reid Fragel for a unit that was a significant factor in the perfect season last year. Chase Farris shared some of the reps with Decker in the spring and his potential continues to excite the coaching staff, but for now Decker has the advantage. But he'll have to prove over and over in August that the edge is real, and if he does, the Buckeyes could pick up right where they left off.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Leadership is the factor Urban Meyer always points to first with teams that accomplish something special, and it's hard to argue with somebody who already owns two national championship rings.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Sam RicheLed by QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State should be even more productive on offense in 2013.
But that quality is too hard to quantify, so ESPN.com's Michael Rothstein went looking for some numbers that would indicate a team is on the path to a crystal football and found some common threads for the last seven teams to raise one at the end of the season.

Borrowing from his results and applying them to Ohio State, last season's team would have fit pretty neatly into the mold with only one exception. And now heading into a year that won't include a postseason ban, the Buckeyes appear to have all the hallmarks of team that could win it all so we break down each of the characteristics and analyze the likelihood of them becoming a perfect fit for a crown.

Criteria for a champion

Rank 38th or better in rushing offense
Last year: No. 10 in the country at 242.3 yards per game
This year: For all the hype and excitement about what Meyer’s spread offense would do for Ohio State’s typically buttoned-down passing game entering his first season with the program, he quickly offered a reminder that his system is based on a successful rushing attack. With Braxton Miller always a threat to break off a long run and Carlos Hyde returning as his tackle-breaking counterpart, not to mention four seniors on the offensive line, the Buckeyes figure to be even more dangerous on the ground even without involving a deeper stable of tailbacks or speedy freshmen capable of playing the famed H-back position.

Finish 23rd or better in scoring offense
Last year: No. 21 with 37.2 points per game
This year: As powerful as the rushing attack is likely to be, the Buckeyes might really start lighting up the scoreboard if a full year in the system allows the passing game to reach another level. By their own admission, the wide receivers were a bit overwhelmed with their responsibilities at times a year ago, and Miller clearly didn’t always look like he knew where the football needed to go. But Philly Brown and Devin Smith are more polished now on the perimeter, Chris Fields, Evan Spencer and Michael Thomas have added some experience and a talented group of newcomers is on the way for fall camp. Ohio State should only improve its point total this fall.

(Read full post)

Leaving a legacy: Philly Brown

June, 26, 2013
6/26/13
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The final chapter hasn't been written yet for Ohio State's senior class, and a handful of Buckeyes have a chance to author something pretty memorable. This week, we'll be looking at five players with a chance to leave a legacy with the program with one more productive season, what kind of impact they might have this fall and how they might be viewed down the road.

Philly Brown
[+] EnlargePhilly Brown
Greg Bartram/US PresswireThe Buckeyes want to see more yards out of leading receiver Philly Brown in his senior season.

  • So far: The veteran wideout already has led Ohio State in receiving twice in his career, though it only took 14 catches to do it as a sophomore. Even his breakout campaign a year ago came with some occasional criticism from the coaching staff, since his yardage didn't explode at quite the same rate as his reception total on the way to 60 grabs. But by the end of his junior year, Brown was showing the kind of speed and elusiveness that Urban Meyer values so highly on the perimeter, and that once again should provide no shortage of opportunities for the Buckeyes to put the ball in the senior's hands. Despite those modest numbers from the 2011 season, Brown is already on the brink of the top 20 in program history for receptions. He likely will be climbing the all-time yardage list steadily this fall, given his prominent role in the spread offense -- if he stays healthy -- putting him in prime position to stake his claim among the most productive targets in school history.
  • Numbers to date: 82 catches for 979 yards and 5 touchdowns; 13 carries for 123 yards and a touchdown; 24 punt returns for 281 yards and 2 touchdowns
  • Record chasing: Brown would need only to maintain the pace he established during his much-improved junior campaign to crack the top five in Ohio State history in receptions, with a projected 70 catches spread over a potential 14 games. He actually only needs to snag 58 passes to pass Santonio Holmes at No. 5 on the career list, and from there it's pretty elite company with the likes of David Boston, Chris Carter, Michael Jenkins and Gary Williams.
  • What's next: There is more help on the way for a thin group of receivers that was at least partially responsible for the heavy workload for Brown last fall, and the Buckeyes still have some experienced options on hand for quarterback Braxton Miller in Devin Smith, Chris Fields and Evan Spencer. Along with sophomore Michael Thomas and a talented group of newcomers, a bit of the weight should be coming off Brown's shoulders this fall. But he also deserves credit for his reliability and progress as a threat to extend plays after the catch, which was also a significant factor in how much he was used during the unbeaten season a year ago. Brown has good chemistry with Miller, he's a sold route-runner -- and is certainly still at the top of the priority list heading into his final year with the program.
  • Crystal ball: The feat wasn't exactly accomplished the same way the first two times, but finishing his career by leading the Buckeyes in receiving for a third year in a row would definitely give Brown a somewhat unique entry in the record books. It's no secret the Buckeyes want him to pile up more yardage as a senior, and if he can bring some of the game-breaking speed and moves he showed on his two punt-return touchdowns last year, they should get what they're looking for this fall. And in the process, Brown might find himself posting one of the most prolific statistical careers the Buckeyes have ever had at wide receiver.
Jordan Hall watched most of Ohio State's 12-0 season from the sideline with mixed emotions.

"It was tough to watch and miss," Hall told ESPN.com. "I played in two and a half games or something. I was happy for my team, but I just wanted to be out there so bad."

[+] EnlargeJordan Hall
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesHealthy again, RB Jordan Hall is giving Ohio State options within its offense.
The running back figured to be out there a lot for Ohio State after the team completed spring practice last April. New head coach Urban Meyer singled out Hall as one of few bright spots for an offense he called a "clown show." But Hall's fortunes turned in late June, when he cut his foot on a broken glass bottle strewn in the front yard of his residence.

The "freak accident" set off a series of setbacks for Hall, the Buckeyes' likely starting running back before his injury. After undergoing surgery, missing preseason camp and the first two games, Hall returned in Week 3 against Cal but suffered a partial tear of his PCL two weeks later at Michigan State. He sat out the rest of the season and received a medical hardship. This spring, the coaches moved Hall to the slotback role where Percy Harvin had shined in Meyer's spread offense, and Hall had a strong start to the session before being slowed by a hamstring injury.

"I just want to get out there," Hall said. "I had to miss a lot of time."

Hall is back to full strength this summer and looks forward to going through a full preseason in the offense. The slotback role is similar to what Hall played in high school, when he teamed with former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor in Jeannette, Pa.

Hall also has slimmed down 10-12 pounds from his 2012 playing weight and checks in at 191 pounds, the lightest he has been since high school.

"I feel a lot better in and out of my cuts," said Hall, who had 653 rush yards, 197 receiving yards and 1,494 return yards in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. "Top-end and everything, it just feels better. I feel like I'm hitting a gear I never really hit before. I'm 100 percent healthy, so I feel like I’m ready to go."

Ohio State took no chances with Hall after the hamstring injury this spring, and Hall admits he wasn't completely ready when he returned to the field last season.

"I didn’t really get to do the summer conditioning, none of the summer training, none of that," he said. "I was just lifting upper body, running on the underwater treadmill a little bit and then I practiced Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of the Cal week and then I played. I feel my leg just wasn't ready for competition, and that's what made me have my knee [injury]."

Hall looks forward to his first full preseason in the Meyer-led offense and recognizes the competition at his position will heat up. Chris Fields had a strong spring, and incoming freshmen Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall could fill the slotback role.

As a fifth-year senior who served as a co-captain before last season, Hall isn't concerned about re-proving himself to the coaches, especially Meyer.

"He's just always on me, [asking] if I'm catching, am I with the quarterbacks, am I doing my rehab," Hall said. "He's just making sure I’m ready to go. He has seen what I can do, and he says I can be a great player if I can stay healthy and do all the right things.

"Everyone's excited."

Hall's Twitter page contains the following words below his avatar: "This year I said it's all business." He has been through a lot Ohio State -- from off-field issues to moderate success to injuries -- and he wants to complete his comeback and be a part of another special season.

"I've just got tunnel vision," he said. "I'm not going to have any distractions. My only focus is football, really, and school. This is my last go-round, so I'm putting everything into it."
As May begins, the 2014 recruiting class appears to be taking shape. While it’s a small class -- right now Ohio State can sign only 14 prospects -- it could grow through attrition. Bradley Roby probably will move on to the NFL following the season. There could be another leaving early -- say someone such as Ryan Shazier -- and there most likely will be a few transfers.

That said we’ll put the number at 18 in the class for right now and take a look at who is in the fold and who looks to be the clubhouse leader at each position.

Again, it’s early May, so don’t set this in stone. It’s just a look at who might fall the Buckeyes’ way before things are finished.


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