COLUMBUS, Ohio — Austin Mack’s 24 catches for 343 yards ranked fourth and sixth, respectively, among Ohio State wide receivers in 2017. So with every player ranked ahead of him in both categories returning, why does it feel like he’s poised to become the Buckeyes’ best receiver in 2018?
The answer lies in the context. Mack, a 4-star receiver from Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Luers in the Class of 2016, is off to the best start of any wide receiver on the roster. His 2017 numbers were better than the combined second-year numbers put up by Ohio State receivers Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin, Johnnie Dixon and K.J. Hill.
“People lose sight of the fact that he was a true sophomore,” wide receiver coach Zach Smith said. “He had a really good year for a true sophomore. Now it’s time to have a big-time junior year. This has got to be a big step in his career. From what I’ve seen in two days, it looks like he’s trying to make that step. I expect him to be one of the best in the country. That’s what he has to be. He’s taking steps to do that.”
And in addition to putting up numbers early in his career in a crowded position group, Mack did so with flair. His sideline catch against Oklahoma was one of the most impressive plays of Ohio State’s season, and his third-and-13 catch against Michigan helped jump-start the Buckeyes’ come-from-behind win against the Wolverines.
Things looked bleak for @OhioStateFB following J.T. Barrett's exit, but Dwayne Haskins and Austin Mack stepped up HUGE on this drive.
And J.K. Dobbins finished the job. 21-20 Buckeyes. pic.twitter.com/Y6c7nDB7Td
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) November 25, 2017
He also arrived in Columbus more ready to play than most. His spring performance drew rave reviews from the coaching staff as he became the first Class of 2016 member to lose his black stripe. And while most Ohio State wide receivers redshirt in their first year on campus, Mack was immediately on the field.
“I think he was kind of different when he first came in,” Campbell said. “He had a lot of technique that usually a freshman doesn’t have. I think he’s a pure receiver. As far as his development goes, he’s been taking huge steps. He’s starting to become that X receiver, that big-time receiver. He’s very smart, and he’s very critical of everything he does. He pays attention to the little things and the details, and that’s what gives him that edge.”
Ohio State lost just one receiver from the 2017 group — freshman Trevon Grimes left midseason and ultimately transferred to Florida — meaning that everyone who put up better numbers than Mack will be back. But the consistent improvement Mack has shown throughout his young Ohio State career makes it obvious that he’s a prime candidate to become the go-to option for whichever quarterback wins the starting job.
The third year in the program has been a springboard for many wide receivers under coach Urban Meyer, and Mack has long idolized another Ohio State wide receiver whose career took off in his third season in Columbus.
“I just have to continue to get better,” he said. “Be efficient, gaining separation and being an elite receiver. My objective is always to be like Mike Thomas.”
That’s a lofty goal, obviously, but it seems less so when comparing Mack’s numbers to Thomas’ first two seasons with the Buckeyes. It’s not much of a comparison at all, given that Thomas notched just 3 catches for 22 yards. Given what Mack has already accomplished, his ceiling seems higher than ever.