History, scheme spur Buckeyes' receivers

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.

That doesn’t guarantee Philly Brown, Devin Smith or a handful of talented young players emerging to complement them in the passing game will become the former. But it certainly won’t hurt their stock if they continue the trend they started last fall.

“I mean, our offense is built around the wide receiver position in the throw game, obviously,” Zach Smith said. “And we rely heavily on them in the throw game not to be a simple college offense. We ask them to do a lot of stuff, and they are receiving an NFL education at the position as far as reading coverages, reading defenders’ techniques, understanding how to attack those.

“I think they weren’t ready [last year], they didn’t know how significant that expectation was -- and now they know. Now they’ve taken that extra step to commit to learning that and understanding that, and thriving and flourishing with that.”

The Buckeyes haven’t fully bloomed, and they also won’t have the full complement of dynamic athletes the program signed in February until this summer, when a new crop of playmakers arrives to add depth to a position that was running a bit low on bodies. But even without the incoming freshmen, there was clear progress seen during a camp that wrapped up Saturday with the annual spring game.

Brown, the leading receiver each of the past two seasons, already had seen his reception total jump from 14 in 2011 to 60 last fall. Now he’s earning more positive reviews for his work after the catch as a shifty threat with the ball in his hands.

Devin Smith was inconsistent last fall, alternating between huge plays as a deep threat and some head-scratching drops on intermediate routes. And while he still has not shaken the up-and-down reputation completely, few players were more productive in the closing exhibition last week than the junior, who hauled in five passes for 76 yards and a touchdown.

Behind that top tandem, Chris Fields has caught the eye of Meyer and was named to a starting spot in the postgame news conference. Evan Spencer flashed his potential with a 49-yard reception and matched Smith’s total yardage. Rising sophomore Michael Thomas capped another productive spring with seven catches, showing off his ability to make difficult plays by going up and snatching a touchdown against physical coverage.

All of those guys still have more time to grow before the season actually starts, and there also will be some new faces joining them. But the messages from Zach Smith don’t figure to change.

“We’re not the most dynamic wide receiver group in the country,” he said. “We have the ability to be, we have the potential to be, which is probably the most awful thing you could say about a group.

“After this past season, they came out of it saying they improved, but we were not near as good as we needed to be. So they knew coming into this winter what they had to do. They put in a good winter -- and now this summer has got to be the best summer in the history of Ohio State football.”

Just in case any of the receivers need somebody to put that history in context for them, Zach Smith will have some numbers handy to help.