COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The feeling was nagging at Parris Campbell, long before Ohio State's 31-0 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals made what he already knew apparent to the rest of the world.
Ohio State had put up a ton of points in the 2016 season, the highlight reel was again relatively well-stocked, and a team that was in position to play for a national championship couldn’t have done so without getting any contributions from the wide receivers at all.
But game after game throughout the regular season, Campbell and the rest of his unit would look back at the film unsatisfied with efforts that didn’t match the expectations for a batch of touted recruits in a program with the Buckeyes' rich history at the position. And the postseason debacle, with an almost nonexistent passing attack, obviously didn’t do anything to change that.
“You know, it wasn’t what we wanted,” Campbell said. “You never want to go through a season not meeting your goals. It was hard, and then having the outcome that we did [in the Fiesta Bowl], it was hard to deal with.
“I mean, all you guys saw it. We weren’t making plays when plays were supposed to be made. Too many balls on the ground, too many opportunities left on the field. As a whole unit, I feel like we never left a game feeling complete, feeling like we did what we wanted to do. For me, that’s the summary.”
That brutal assessment is perhaps a bit too harsh, particularly given some of the positives from last season. There was the dynamic work of Curtis Samuel, who led the team in receptions. Noah Brown emerged as an acrobatic red zone threat and finished with seven touchdown grabs. Even when the football wasn’t in the air, the blocking the wideouts provided on the perimeter was invaluable for an attack that rushed for nearly 3,200 yards.
But it’s also true that the receivers came into spring camp as perhaps the position group most under pressure to deliver given coach Urban Meyer’s mandate to improve a passing attack that started to sputter well before posting just 127 yards in the loss to eventual national champ Clemson. And while the receivers aren’t solely responsible for the problems of last season and aren't the only solution needed in 2017, they also aren’t denying how much work there is to be done -- particularly with Samuel, Brown and Dontre Wilson all gone from the program.
“Coach [Meyer] uses this term: We’re not going to swing and miss,” redshirt junior Terry McLaurin said. “We have the talent, but talent isn’t anything if we can’t put it all together. We know what it was like years before, and then when we’re not meeting that expectation, it’s tough on all of us.
“You just have to keep pushing. I know it’s kind of cliché to say, but we’re just working really hard. The biggest difference I’ve seen, this is going into my fourth year, we’re meeting with the quarterbacks every single day on the deep ball alone. We’re not leaving any stone unturned this year.”
Considering the undeniable potential in a meeting room loaded with blue-chip prospects, that sort of commitment to improve figures to produce some results.
Campbell has earned rave reviews as he’s transitioned into the H-back role Samuel made famous last season. McLaurin’s speed has helped him become a consistent big-play threat on the practice field leading up to the final week of spring camp. K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor, Johnnie Dixon and Austin Mack have been singled out for praise at various times and could give the Buckeyes at least six targets they can rotate even before another batch of talented freshmen jump in the mix.
The offensive line will still have to protect the passer better. Quarterback J.T. Barrett will still have to deliver the football accurately and confidently downfield. The playcalling will still need to be more creative under new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson.
But the receivers can’t control any of that, and they’re well-aware that they have to hold up their end of the bargain if the Buckeyes are going to get back to where they want to go.
“As a whole, it’s about being a complete receiver unit,” Campbell said. “Catching the ball, running great routes, being where we have to be on time, getting open. You have to get over [last season], get to the next page and go to work. I think we’re just taking a huge step.
“We came out here with a chip on our shoulder this spring, knowing we had to improve after the past years and not having the successful seasons that we wanted. We knew we had to take a big step, and I think this spring that’s what we’re doing.”
And if everything goes according to plan, by the fall, Campbell won’t have to worry about dealing with those incomplete feelings anymore.