Fall after spring

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Michael Thomas spent his freshman season at Ohio State seemingly living on polar ends of the spectrum.

There was the extreme high that came with closing out his first spring game by leading the Buckeyes in catches, sending expectations soaring and building a fever pitch of anticipation for what he could do at wide receiver right away.

Then there was almost everything that came after, the reality that set in for a talented young player struggling to turn that easy, natural athleticism into production at a higher level.

But aside from quickly learning the difference between shining in a practice setting and in a game for an unbeaten team, his first year with the Buckeyes left plenty of lessons for Thomas to absorb along the way. And the low points have been the most instructive as Ohio State closes in on the anniversary of a performance that seemed at the time more like a coming-out party than just a particularly good workout in front of a crowd.

"Last year I think he might have been a little inflated, but he's not now, because of the result of the season after the spring game," wide receivers coach Zach Smith said. "I don't think it was a curse. I think right now today as it stands, it was motivating, because of the year he had and the expectations he had after the spring game. I'm glad it happened now.

"The best thing that happened to him was having to deal with success and failure."

Both the Buckeyes and Thomas surely would have been better off if he had flipped the order around. But instead of struggling in the early going, the coaching staff repeatedly found ways to get Thomas involved in the passing attack last spring on the way to 12 catches, 131 yards and all the attention that came along with them.

That was just an exhibition, though, and it was when the games actually counted that Thomas started showing his age. In a limited role off the bench, he was rarely targeted and finished with just three catches for 22 yards -- which certainly didn't live up to the expectations that had swelled on a Saturday afternoon in April.

There were plenty of reasons for that, starting with some issues learning different responsibilities, as the Buckeyes moved Thomas from one receiver position to another. The Buckeyes had improved play from their veterans at the position, and they also leaned more heavily on the rush than the pass over the course of the season. But even without much to look at it statistically, Thomas was increasingly trusted with more work as his freshman campaign wore on -- and that load should only get heavier as he gets more comfortable as a sophomore.

"Yeah, it was definitely a learning experience," Thomas said. "We were winning every week, and you know, everything was going fast. Installing new plays, game-planning for new teams, just everything was going fast.

"Then all of a sudden get back to spring, I'm able to slow it down, get back and work on things that I need to work on."

Thomas, of course, has shined during the spring before. And whether it's the game slowing down, an improved knowledge of the spread offense or his own impressive physical development, he's once again flashing his potential this year.

His intermediate routes have been crisp during open workouts. He embraces contact from defensive backs and has shown strong hands while pulling down difficult catches. He has shown an ability to adjust to deep balls and make plays all over the field, traits that figure to be on public display again in the spring game on Saturday in Cincinnati.

It can be dangerous to read too much into a performance in that setting or to put a lot of stock into a productive outing heading into the summer. But that's another lesson that's already been learned.

"Mike is a very talented kid, a very talented player," Smith said. "I think Mike was a young kid who was a little clueless at first. ... But, 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 that really fueled the last six months."

It now has been 12 months since Thomas made his big spring splash. The next step is making one in the fall.