COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Ohio State coach Urban Meyer gathered his upperclassmen before their first practice of fall camp, he kept the speech brief.
But before he was finished, he called out five names — H-back Dontre Wilson, wide receivers Corey Smith and Noah Brown, and safeties Erick Smith and Cam Burrows. One by one, each player stood and was recognized with a congratulatory handshake from Meyer and applause from teammates.
None had yet to make a play in camp, but the simple fact that they were there was deemed worthy enough of recognition. All five sustained season-ending injuries in 2015 but have returned to full health in time for the 2016 campaign. For Corey Smith and Brown that meant coming back from a broken leg, while Erick Smith has recovered from a torn ACL and Wilson and Burrows have shaken off the foot injuries that kept them off the field.
“The hardest part of our profession is when a player gets hurt, and one of the great things of our profession is when they come back and join their team again,” Meyer said after practice. “I just love it. I do that every year, and you see the guys light up because they’re playing the game they love again and being around the kids they enjoy being around.”
With so many jobs up for grabs in fall practice, here’s a look at how each of the aforementioned five players might contribute to Ohio State this season:
Brown is certainly one of the biggest “what-ifs” from last season for Ohio State. After playing as a true freshman in 2014, the praise thrown his way in the spring of 2015 mirrored that of Darron Lee prior to his breakout campaign in 2014. All signs pointed to him being one of the leading receivers on the team, and Meyer believes he could have come close to matching the production of leading receiver Michael Thomas.
“I think he would have been (one of OSU’s best receivers) last year,” Meyer said at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. “I think he was right there with Mike. Mike was our best receiver, but the guy right behind him was Noah. He would for sure have been the starter. I’m hoping he has an All-Big Ten year for us.”
With Thomas and Braxton Miller gone, the chances will be there for Brown to stake his claim as quarterback J.T. Barrett’s most dependable option.
Burrows might have the toughest hill to climb of anyone on this list. Once thought as a potential heir to the two-year safety tandem of Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell, Burrows has fallen behind Malik Hooker and converted cornerback Damon Webb in the safety battle.
On top of that, he would also have to contend with Erick Smith, who is younger and has more eligibility remaining, if both end up as backups.
The former JUCO star hasn’t quite lived up to expectations in Columbus, but he’ll get one more chance to make his mark after breaking his leg midway through the 2015 season.
His previous production (25 career catchs for 317 yards) should give him a head start in the wide receiver room, and he and Brown enter fall camp as the two most likely options to win the starting jobs at that position. Whether he can find the end zone for the first time as a Buckeye remains to be seen, but he’s shown he can deliver some production.
The Cleveland Glenville product got off to an intriguing start and even recorded an interception as a true freshman in 2014. However, the knee injury he sustained in November ended any chances he had of making a breakthrough at safety in his second season of college ball.
In Smith’s defense, however, Powell was a big fan of his when healthy and said prior to the 2015 season that the Buckeyes would be fine if Smith needed to step in and play. “Erick’s the man,” Powell said. “If I ever break a shoestring, ain’t nobody gonna blink an eye. Everybody’s going to be like, ‘We’re good.’ ”
There’s no debating that Wilson has had the most star-crossed career of this bunch. The former heralded recruit couldn’t quite break loose for the big plays as a freshman in 2013 and then broke his foot during the 2014 season. He opened the 2015 campaign with a one-game suspension and couldn’t overcome more injuries.
Meyer said both at Media Days and after Ohio State’s first practice that he’s a big believer in Wilson and hopes he stays healthy for his final season as a Buckeye.
“His body’s got to maintain,” Meyer said. “It’s a tough sport. His heart’s always into it, but a broken foot – you can’t control that. He had a good day (Sunday), but once again it’s a long journey.”
With Braxton Miller and Jalin Marshall both off to the NFL and Curtis Samuel possibly needed more in the backfield this season than out wide, the opportunity has never been better for Wilson to deliver the breakthrough performance that Buckeye fans have been waiting to see.