COLUMBUS, Ohio — You know the names of the departed. They are that familiar.
Mike Thomas, a second-round NFL draft pick of the New Orleans Saints, has been turning heads around the NFL already. Braxton Miller, a third-round pick of the Houston Texans, is drawing rave reviews for his athleticism and the effort he’s put into changing himself from a longtime quarterback into a serviceable wideout. Jalin Marshall, an undrafted free agent who signed with the New York Jets, already has worked his way into the two-deep rotation with his versatility and savvy.
At Ohio State, those guys are not going to be easy to replace, no matter how you slice it.
Some of the top options to replace that group are coming back from significant injuries that either ended their 2015 season or kept them from ever going full speed. You go from a group that everyone who followed college football knew to a group that no one — unless you’re a diehard Buckeyes fan — has ever heard of.
You know about Curtis Samuel, probably. But let’s take him out of this conversation since he didn’t come in to Ohio State as a wide receiver, or start his career there, and it’s not likely he’ll stay there for all of 2016. Samuel’s talents make him a player that will be used all over the field and he’s likely to have as many carries — or more— this fall as catches. Beyond that, it’s cloudy.
“We’re replacing three starters. There are a lot of names that maybe Buckeyes fans know because they keep up in recruiting or maybe they read preseason stuff last year, but nationally? They haven’t played a lot,” Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith said Monday. “That’s not taking anything from them as far as talent, ability and performance, because if we’re not the best receiving group in the country, I’ll be upset and mad.
“Do we have the players to do that? I think so. We’re not there yet, but I think we will get there. People will take notice if we are, because right now we’re nobody. No names.”
There’s Noah Brown, probably the only guy that’s locked into a starting role right now, and he’s coming back from a broken leg. There’s Corey Smith, a sixth-year from the school of hard knocks and he’s coming back from a broken leg, too. Senior Dontre Wilson broke his foot toward the end of the 2014 season and reinjured it in 2015 and hasn’t emerged as a go-to player yet. Junior Johnnie Dixon? He’s been hampered by tendinitis that has kept him from staying on the field the last two years. Redshirt sophomore Parris Campbell? Knee injuries cost him all but three games in 2015.
Make no mistake, there’s a lot of talent when you look around Ohio State’s receiver room, which is about 12 deep. But there are no players — especially not Brown and Smith, who are still a “work in progress” health-wise according to Smith — are what the Buckeyes coaching staff would consider “game ready.” Sure, a few guys are closer than others, but no one is 100 percent and with so many bodies, even Urban Meyer can’t place them all right now.
“Noah’s obviously going to be in there,” Meyer said Monday when asked about the two-deep at wide receiver. You’ve got Dontre and Curtis (Samuel). Parris, I don’t know how Parris doesn’t start. He and Terry McLaurin have had a really good camp. Austin Mack will be in the mix. Who am I missing? It’s a little bit of a rotation right now.”
How do the no-names become names? Why aren’t guys like Campbell, who was a highly-ranked 4-star prospect when he came out of Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, not being talked about while redshirt freshmen like Torrance Gibson and K.J. Hill – or a freshman like Austin Mack – are?
“I think it’s just a byproduct of being in other’s shadows and being unproven,” Zach Smith said. “Parris Campbell may be the best receiver on the team behind Curtis Samuel. Noah will be probably, but he’s still a little rusty. Corey’s been a little inconsistent at times. Parris looks like a first-rounder.”
That’s high praise for a player who has more career tackles (7) than he has catches (0). One of the fastest players on the team, Campbell has earned the accolades from his coach, in part due to his willingness to mix it up on special teams. The truth is that not everyone is willing to fight for playing time that way but that’s how these players, these no names, will create their legacy.
“It’s different for every kid. Every kid has a couple weaknesses they need to strengthen and a couple things I need to see them do in a live environment,” said Smith, Ohio State’s fifth-year assistant coach. “I could go through all 12 guys and we’d be here a while. Each kid — I can’t stamp anybody as game ready; there are a couple that are really close — I need to get that weakness and strengthen it, so when it’s game time they’re ready.
“Special teams is the gateway to the field. Mike Thomas was on kickoff return last year and he wasn’t coming off. So, they’re going to be on special teams. That’s a non-negotiable option for them, because they know the impact that provides. Skill-set wise, you obviously have your football position, your speed, everything at every position will translate over, and you’re going to see it in special teams and develop it on special teams. It’s a good identifier, but it’s also critical for everyone in my room to be involved if they wanted to be involved on offense.”
Getting involved in the offense, making big plays, that’s how guys like Parris Campbell – who started the Buckeyes season-opener in 2015 while Jalin Marshall and Corey Smith faced a one-game suspension – will make the leap. That’s how guys like Johnnie Dixon prove they can be a leader for a group that desperately needs one.
This isn’t the 2015, All-Name Buckeyes. This is the 2016, No-Name Buckeyes.
“These guys are different,” Smith added. “I loved my group last year and love this year’s group, too. Last year, they talked and were loud but they meant business. This year, these guys will have a voice when they earn it, and they earn it by making big plays in big games. They’ll have some early chances to do that.”