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Football: Ohio State wide receivers under microscope in 2017

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OSU then-redshirt freshman wide receiver K.J. Hill (14) avoids a tackle during the second half of the Buckeyes game against Nebraska on Nov. 5. The Buckeyes won 62-3. Credit: Alexa Mavrogianis | Photo Editor

Last season, the production of the wide receiver unit for the Ohio State football team was subpar to say the least. As a group, the wideouts for the Buckeyes hauled in 16 touchdowns and racked up 1,445 yards — numbers that might seem impressive on paper, but fall well short of the high standard set by OSU coach Urban Meyer.

The lack of a deep ball and overall inability to produce chunk plays in key moments led to a lackluster aerial offense. The team’s leading receiver, Curtis Samuel, played as an H-back and took a large percentage of his snaps from the backfield, but far and away led the team in yards and also tied Noah Brown for most receiving touchdowns (7).

While Samuel was not actually a part of the wide receiver group for OSU last season, he and Brown were the clear leading pass catchers for the Buckeyes. And now, both have bolted for the NFL draft.

With new playmakers needed at the position, and questions swirling about how effective the wide receivers for the Buckeyes can be this year, coach Zach Smith said the team needs those elusive chunk plays that were nonexistent last season in order to right the wrongs of a stagnant passing game.

“We gotta make big plays,” he said. “We gotta hit the deep ball, we gotta throw the deep ball, we gotta protect the deep ball. When that happens — you’ve seen it here before — it opens everything up. And when it doesn’t happen, it’s hard to open everything up.”

The low passing yard average of 213.9 yards per game, which ranked 81st in the country last season, was a key criticism of Meyer’s team in 2016. With Brown poised for a potential breakout season after breaking his leg during the spring the year prior, and a slew of young talent, more was expected from a normally stout OSU offense.

Instead, Brown posted mostly mediocre numbers apart from his four touchdown performance against Oklahoma, and most of the young receivers received limited playing time. This year, even with returning players such as redshirt juniors Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin, OSU must have production from its younger players in order to be successful.

Campbell might not even be featured as a wide receiver often, considering Meyer said earlier this spring he has been working as an H-back during camp. Still, he feels OSU fans need not worry about the wideouts in 2017, even with the top performers from last year leaving early.

“At a premier program like this, it’s always going to be guys coming in and guys leaving,” Campbell said. “It’s a huge rotation and so much talent comes through here and so much talent that leaves so we have no choice but to step up. We have an incredible amount of talent in our room right now and I think we’re going to live up to those expectations.”

Redshirt sophomore K.J. Hill, who is also spending time as an H-back this spring, is viewed as a more veteran presence in the wide receiver room after spending two seasons in Columbus. Plus, coming into his third year with OSU, he will be expected to produce in nearly every game after hauling in the team’s first passing touchdown last season.

Hill said he is pleased with what he is seeing from the group prior to the spring game, and feels the team is ready to show they can produce a deep ball threat, and produce where they need to to push the team to the next level.

“Everybody got the same motto this year,” he said. “There’s been different types of things going on, but right now we just want to establish ourselves as the best group in the country. So we’ve just been practicing like that every day even though it’s been getting tough, we’re just there reminding each other about it. That we want to be the best.”

Sophomore Binjimen Victor, who Meyer said has been making strides this spring, was seen in an orange, non-contact jersey. After being banged up in practice, Victor is still expected to play in Saturday’s spring game, Smith said.

OSU kicks off the season with the annual Scarlet and Gray scrimmage on Saturday, with kickoff scheduled for 12:30 p.m.

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