COLUMBUS – When Urban Meyer called Ohio State’s passing game last season “non-functional” and “inadequate,” the Buckeyes’ receivers might have grimaced outwardly, but inside they might have been smiling.
Criticism is never easy to take. But since “non-existent” was also an accurate description of OSU’s passing game at times in 2011, the arrival of Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman’s high-energy, make-plays-in-space offense was something for the Buckeyes’ wideouts to celebrate.
“You’ve got to smile. You’ve got to,” sophomore receiver Evan Spencer said about his reaction to what’s in store on offense at Ohio State this season.
Devin Smith, Corey Brown and Jake Stoneburner tied for the team lead with 14 catches last season, the lowest total to lead Ohio State since 1977. Spencer, the son of former OSU player and assistant coach Tim Spencer, caught three passes, one for a touchdown, as a freshman.
Meyer was not the only one disappointed with the passing game produced last year. OSU’s receivers thought they could have done more, too.
“We were young but we could still make plays. We didn’t really have the opportunities we thought we should have,” Spencer said. “This year, with the fact that we have these opportunities, it’s like a kid in a candy shop for us. We’re all just loving it.”
Stoneburner, a senior who was a wide receiver in high school, will go back to that position after playing tight end the last three years. Smith, a sophomore whose 2011 highlight was catching the game-winning touchdown pass against Wisconsin, has been impressive in practice.
Brown, Spencer and Michael Thomas, a freshman who caught 12 passes in the spring game, all could break into the starting lineup. And Verlon Reed is rehabilitating a knee injury he suffered after starting the first five games last season.
The standouts so far in practice, according to OSU’s coaches, have been Smith and Brown.
Ohio State’s passing game had many limitations last season, including a first-year quarterback, Braxton Miller, young receivers and a playbook that was not exactly imaginative.
Miller, who threw for 1,159 yards and led the team in rushing with 715 yards, has made strides this year both in throwing the ball and in leadership.
“He’s more of a technician. He’s thinking more and knows what he should do,” Spencer said.
Meyer has consistently praised Miller since he was hired as OSU’s coach in November. “Braxton Miller is dynamic. He’s the most dynamic athlete I’ve coached,” Meyer said at the Big Ten media days in Chicago.
That’s a long way from “non-functional” and “inadequate.” And it’s a long way from the 4 on a scale of 10 rating Meyer recently assigned to OSU’s passing game.
The receivers hope to change that perception on the field, starting with the opener against Miami of Ohio in two weeks.
“That definitely got under our skins that we couldn’t do what we all knew we could do last season,” Spencer said. “But this year now that we kind of have the chance to get the ball and make plays, it feels so good for us to go out and do what we know we can do.
“It’s just comfortability with what we know we’re going to do. And, most importantly, I feel we know our jobs and we’re getting to know why we have to do them. We know the plays, we’re becoming more comfortable with knowing why this play works or in what coverage we’re going to get the ball.”