COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The evaluation basically boiled down to three-play segments.
Once out of every three snaps, something was going really wrong. Michael Thomas would blow an assignment, run a route wrong, or just go completely in the opposite direction.
A second play would be fine. Nothing out of the ordinary, a decent block or perhaps a solid reception but nothing for the Ohio State coaching staff to get too excited about.
The third snap, though, that had the potential to be something else entirely.
Maybe the incredible athleticism, the strong hands or the physical presence wouldn’t show up in every sample from the practice field. But when it did, in the form of a ridiculous one-handed grab or a leaping touchdown in the end zone, the Buckeyes could see the bright future ahead for Thomas and what he could bring to the offense.
They just couldn’t get over that first play, which left Thomas on the sideline all of last season as a healthy, redshirting sophomore who could only show off his potential on the scout team.
“He’s always had the ability,” wide receivers coach Zach Smith said. “He’s always had those moment every now and then where you just go, ‘Wow!’
“You know, Mike’s biggest battle was consistency. It was extremely inconsistent, inconsistent, slightly inconsistent, then he started becoming more consistent. His issue has never been with the ‘wow’ moment. What’s really impressed me is all of a sudden it’s every play I’m seeing good things.”
That newfound reliability is now allowing Thomas to show a much larger audience what he can do, and he hasn’t disappointed Ohio State so far, blossoming into the most dangerous threat for a passing attack that needed a go-to target.
Thomas leads the Buckeyes in each of the major statistical categories with 11 catches, 214 yards and four touchdowns through three games, finally delivering on the hype that has swirled around him since exploding during a spring exhibition before his freshman season. He followed that up with a disappointing campaign that included just three receptions for 22 yards, then built the buzz back up with more head-turning plays the following spring.
But an uneven training camp, broken down a few plays at a time, kept the Buckeyes from putting him on the field last fall. And the challenge before him was clearly laid out, from absorbing the playbook to improving his practice habits and even just developing more maturity.
“I felt like, you know, life is not always going to be the way the you want it to go,” Thomas said. “Sometimes you have obstacles, and that was an obstacle that I had to overcome. I had to remain positive. I still had to keep a straight head.
“If I came out here negative and didn’t get better, then I’m hurting myself for next year when I have to go on the field. You can’t redshirt again. I couldn’t waste a year again.”
It’s clear now the year was put to good use, and even before it was over last fall, Smith was seeing signs that Thomas had turned the corner.
With Ohio State struggling to fill out the rotation at wide receiver and relying heavily on the rushing attack at the end of the season, there might have even been some temptation to pull the redshirt and promote Thomas off the scout team, where he had been testing himself against first-round NFL draft pick Bradley Roby.
“It was tough,” Smith said. “You don’t want to waste a year for one game. But you’re looking at some ‘wow’ moments, and not only that, by the end of the year he had developed a lot.
“It was really hard to walk into a game saying I’ve got a guy I’m starting to feel really confident about, but I can’t use him right now.”
That’s not a problem anymore, and the Buckeyes are certainly taking advantage of his availability now.
Thomas isn’t a finished product yet, and he hasn’t even turned in one of those jaw-dropping grabs that Ohio State has seen on the practice field. But with the errors and inconsistency largely in the past, Thomas should have plenty of chances to start making them.
“It's been a process,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. “He was the mistake guy, every third play he would go the wrong way or make a mistake and come up with some excuse.
“He’s done a nice job. I know we did the right thing [last year], and so does he.”
The Buckeyes and Thomas are both reaping the benefits now, one three-play segment at a time.