- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Zach Smith won't shield his unit from criticism, and it received plenty for the issues of a struggling passing attack a year ago.
But for all the problems that the Ohio State receivers coach is quick to point out, he's not going to make them shoulder all the blame, either.
The pass protection was far from perfect, and the Buckeyes allowed too many sacks. Braxton Miller is a truly unique weapon at quarterback, but his decision-making and accuracy as a sophomore left plenty to be desired. As dominant as the rushing attack was last season, perhaps the tailbacks could have been a bit sharper at picking up blitzing defenders when Ohio State was trying to air it out.
Those areas of improvement aren't pointed out to absolve the receiving corps, and neither Smith nor coach Urban Meyer have ever sugarcoated their feelings about a group they have publicly labeled as "dysfunctional" and a "clown show."
It does, however, offer a reminder that it takes more than crisp route-running and steady hands to put on an aerial show. But based on the lack of jokes at their expense during training camp, it appears the wideouts have done everything they can to avoid coming in at No. 1 on the list of things holding back the spread offense.
"Every group had their deficiencies in that area, and the wide receivers probably most contributed," Smith said. "But there’s been definite commitment to improving that.
"I think it’s been a long process. It’s not something that could have happened overnight, and I think where we’re at right now, ‘OK, we’ve taken a step, we’re no longer dysfunctional -- now let’s go be the best receiver unit in the country.’ "
That goal would have been almost unthinkable for the Buckeyes a year ago, when the bar was set almost comically low following a 2011 season in which it took just 14 catches to lead the team.
The transition to a more wide-open offense did yield instant results, with Philly Brown pushing the team-leading reception total out to 60, Devin Smith providing a deep threat capable of striking from anywhere and Evan Spencer showing flashes at times of becoming a reliable third option. But all of them had soft spots in their games, most notably a lack of explosiveness after the catch from Brown and occasional lapses in focus from Devin Smith that led to some easy drops. And there also wasn't much depth to speak of behind them, with only four players cracking double-digits in receptions as the offense skewed heavily toward the rush.
The receivers are intent on changing that this year. And aside from more polished play from top veterans such as Brown and Smith, the Buckeyes are getting vastly improved play on the practice field from Spencer, have skilled and developing weapons in Michael Thomas and Chris Fields waiting in the wings and a fresh handful of talented newcomers with the type of speed Meyer so covets on the edges.
Miller's talent as a rusher and a deep stable of rushers still might keep the Buckeyes from becoming a team that can perfectly balance the ratio between the run and pass. But the development of the receivers this fall can certainly help it come closer than the 2-to-1 mark it posted last season, even if the responsibility isn't all on them.
"I think it’s natural development," Zach Smith said. "A year ago, I told everyone that it was a young group that needed to grow up and develop and get better, and that’s something they’ve done. Fast-forward a year: They had trials, tribulations, had hard times, great successes, and they have grown and learned from mistakes to the point that now they’re able to be a mature group, able to use those learning points in the past to make sure they don’t happen again and to grow from them.
"I’m pleased with the growth from the last year, and now we’ve got to keep going. ... The next step we have to take is the consistent domination as a group. When we take that step, I’ll be really pleased."
And if they do make it, the receivers can share some of the glory the same way they have the blame.
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