Just a year ago, Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith had a lot to look forward to. A potential first-round pick in Michael Thomas lined up on the outside, poised for a season improving from his 54 receptions, 799 yards and 9 touchdowns in 2014. It’s the type of go-to weapon that transformed good OSU teams into great ones. Ted Ginn Jr. was that guy in 2006, Devin Smith filled the role on the 2014 national-championship team, and Thomas did a more-than-adequate job in 2015.
Comprised of Thomas, Jalin Marshall, Curtis Samuel, Dontre Wilson, Corey Smith and Braxton Miller, the 2015 receiving core seemed to be one of the most dangerous groups in the nation. Fast forward to 2016 and three of the six big names from coach Urban Meyer’s receiving core remain among a cluster of new, young faces.
OSU’s annual spring game provided the first opportunity for many of the team’s young wideouts to be in the spotlight. Stepping in front of a crowd of 100,189 — a national spring-game record — the atmosphere provided a perfect platform for many players’ first experiences in Ohio Stadium.
“You got to find out how guys perform in those kind of arenas, and those kind of situations,” Meyer said.
Based off of Saturday’s performance, Meyer and the coaching staff has to be pleased with how his receivers performed. Playing without redshirt sophomore Noah Brown, Samuel, Wilson and Smith, who are coming back from injuries suffered last season, players like redshirt sophomores Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin, redshirt freshman Torrance Gibson and true freshman Austin Mack all had notable afternoons.
Campbell, who failed to grab a catch last season after starting versus Virginia Tech in the 2015 opener, hauled in an 11-yard pass from redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett on his first target of the game on Scarlet’s first drive. Campbell was only targeted four times on the day, but he displayed an ability to run by defenders. The redshirt sophomore found himself on the receiving end of a 40-yard pass in the third quarter and a 55-yard completion in the fourth.
OSU coach Urban Meyer said Campbell “had to make that catch at the end of the game.”
“You do that in practice, it’s not that big of a deal,” Meyer said of the play. “He has to do that in game, and I saw him do it, so there’s a bunch of really good things.”
Staring for the Gray team were Gibson and McLaurin, who combined to collect 10 of 14 receptions from redshirt freshman quarterback Joe Burrow.
A member of the 2014 recruiting class and a former four-star recruit, McLaurin was a constant deep threat for Burrow all game. Totaling four receptions, 111 yards and one touchdown, McLaurin said postgame that Meyer is really counting on the unit not to have a drop off this season after losing much of its core from 2015.
“Coach Meyer put a big emphasis on who is going to take that role, who’s going to be the deep threat,” McLaurin said. “As a whole unit, we want to make plays whenever your number is called. That’s one of our core concepts, making the play when your number is called.”
Absent all of last year, it wasn’t difficult to notice No. 6 on Gray Saturday. The former five-star recruit Gibson made headlines last fall when it was announced that he would be playing wide receiver for the near future. After failing to see the field in 2015, Gibson seemed to be the go-to target for Burrow.
Gibson received 11 targets, reeling in six of them for 50 yards while also pushing the ball over the goal line twice, the second of which came on reverse. Recruited as more of an athlete out of high school, Gibson showed off his impressive display of agility and size, seemingly able to run by defenders with ease. He dropped the ball once in the end zone, showing his youth at the position, but there’s no question that at 6-foot-4 with a 35-inch vertical, Gibson will likely see time at the position come September.
Early-enrollee freshman Austin Mack, who was the first member of the 2016 recruiting class to have his black stripe removed, made his debut for the Buckeyes. Mack was looked to often by Barrett, mostly on a deep ball, but only totaled three receptions and 22 yards in his first game in the ‘Shoe.
Barrett said he was encouraged by the performance of the wide receiver group and feels like he can count on them during the season.
“Those guys, they definitely showed that they’ll be able to make plays in front of a crowd like this,” Barrett said.
When players like Brown, Wilson, Samuel and Smith are healthy and practicing again, McLaurin said that it’s important to take the momentum the unit has from the spring game and carry it over into the summer and fall.
“I would say this is the hungriest group that I’ve been apart of in three years,” McLaurin said. “We know what’s at stake and we hope to take that next step forward because we want to be the best group in the country.”
OSU will look to take that step on Sept. 3, when it is scheduled to begin its season against Bowling Green at the ‘Shoe.