As Ohio State heads to Virginia Tech looking to avenge its 2014 loss to the Hokies, it does so with a relatively depleted and unproven receiving corps.
Three key pieces from last year — tight end Jeff Heuerman and wide receivers Evan Spencer and Devin Smith — have moved on to the NFL.
Redshirt senior receiver Corey Smith, as well as H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson, are suspended for the season opener.
On top of that, sophomore receiver Noah Brown — who coaches were counting on for increased production in 2015 — suffered a broken leg in practice last Wednesday and will miss the entire season.
That leaves coach Urban Meyer with only three players — redshirt junior receiver Michael Thomas, redshirt senior tight end Nick Vannett and sophomore H-back Curtis Samuel — who had double-digit receptions in 2014 available to suit up against the Hokies.
It appears the team will be relying heavily on the trio to step up and shoulder the load in the passing game.
“Somebody’s got to step up,” Vannett said. “We got a lot of young guys who haven’t really had that game experience, so I think they’re kind of looking to the older guys to play a huge role in this game.”
Thomas, who led the team in catches last year with 54 receptions, will have his work cut out for him in Blacksburg, Virginia, though, as he will likely spend most of the game lined up against Virginia Tech’s junior cornerback Kendall Fuller — an ESPN preseason first-team All-American.
However the coaching staff is not worried about that matchup.
“We aren’t worried about Mike Thomas and him playing a great game and being productive,” offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Ed Warinner said. “Although we know the quality of player that, if that’s the guy (Fuller) that covers him, we know how good he is too. That’s one of those big-time matchups.”
Samuel, who was used mainly as a running back last year, and Vannett, a 6-foot-6 target who had 19 receptions for 220 yards and five touchdowns last year, will have a much bigger role.
Beyond those three, the Buckeyes have a bevy of inexperienced but talented receivers.
That group is highlighted by redshirt senior Braxton Miller, a former quarterback now playing H-back.
Miller has impressed Meyer lately, prompting the coach to say that the former Big Ten Player of the Year is “darn near ready to go” for the opener against the Hokies.
Redshirt freshmen Johnnie Dixon, Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin — “all guys that can play at this level,” according to Meyer — will also be counted on to contribute on Labor Day.
Dixon has battled knee tendonitis, but Meyer says he is now at full speed.
Vannett said he feels that the West Palm Beach, Florida, native Dixon could make his presence felt early on.
“He’s a fast guy, he runs good routes and he’s got good hands,” Vannett said. “He could have a good impact in this game.”
It’s a large stage for the redshirt freshmen, but Vannett said he thinks they will be ready when kickoff comes at 8 p.m. Monday in Blacksburg.
“Even in the offseason, the coaches kind of prepare us for big stages like this. You come to a place like Ohio State, you’ve got to be ready to play in games like this,” Vannett said. “With all the preparation we’ve done in the offseason and up to this point, I think they’re ready to compete.”