Depth develops at WR spot
Once thought a weak position, group finds surprising contributors
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- One position coach is borrowing players from other units, another whose position depth took a hit, thanks to attrition before the season began, and one more who has survived so far this season with just his first unit.
Then there's Zach Smith, the assistant who suddenly has more options than he had initially at receiver and might just be the envy of the entire Ohio State staff.
True freshman needs a little time to develop? Hey, that's all right, as soon as Michael Thomas was ready there were meaningful snaps waiting for him and a pass thrown his way.
Lost in the shuffle since the first few games? The Buckeyes survived without Evan Spencer in the middle of the season until he was up to speed again and catching five balls through the last two weeks.
A unit that was perhaps the most criticized during spring practice and the offseason still didn't have the complete confidence of the Buckeyes when it hit the field in September. But now Smith clearly has no shortage of targets in whom he has faith to get the job done -- though not necessarily more than he knows what to do with.
"Obviously we didn't create players [out of thin air]," Smith said. "The guys have been there, they've just improved and improved to a point now where they can be involved and we can feel confident in them performing.
"At the beginning of the year, four guys played, maybe five. Obviously I didn't feel as confident in the other three or four or however many. So, it's just been an improvement and a commitment by those guys that weren't playing to where now I think everyone -- the players, the unit, myself, coach [Urban] Meyer -- everybody feels more confident with them in the game."
The Buckeyes might have been operating at only half capacity early on, but they've got no issues using essentially everybody at their disposal in the passing game now.
Jake Stoneburner has shaken off a three-game drought with 7 grabs for 144 yards and a touchdown in the next three since snapping the skid. Spencer's string without a catch was one week longer, but he caught more throws from Braxton Miller than anybody on the field last week at Penn State. Needed in a pinch with leading receiver Corey "Philly" Brown hurt at the end of the thriller against Purdue, Fields made a sensational play in the end zone to help pull off the great escape and keep Ohio State unbeaten.
And while neither those guys nor the regulars on whom the Buckeyes have counted all season, such as Brown and Devin Smith, have truly eye-popping statistics. Thanks to an offense that leans heavily on its ground attack, it's starting to get more challenging to stand out anyway, with so many guys now able to lend a set of hands.
"Even if I'm not on the field, I've got so much trust in all the rest of the guys, it's like, if I'm not making a play I know somebody else is," Spencer said. "It doesn't bother me in the least.
"At the end of the day, it's all about winning that game."
The Buckeyes have continued to do that even while shuffling players around to patch up holes at linebacker. They've rolled right along while relying on a group of veterans to handle the vast majority of the work on the defensive line. And they've thrived, thanks to an offensive line that has been blessed with good health to keep all the starters on the field.
All of those issues have provided some challenges for the coaching staff along the way, and Zach Smith, of course, has plenty of work to do with his position group to get it where he and Meyer want it. But at this point, Smith is seemingly in a rare spot for the Buckeyes, potentially finishing the season with more depth than when it started.
"I think it's kind of a testament to them," he said. "Seeing that, 'You know what, I'm not on the field and I don't want to stand on the sideline and watch. I want to be on the field.'
"Nobody that is at Ohio State wants to stand on the sideline and watch. Nobody."
At least at receiver, the deeper the season goes, the fewer observers the Buckeyes have had.