"Big Brother" was certainly watching as the Buckeyes tried to mold a group featuring a number of talented but green receivers who fell well short of expectations a year ago. Head coach Urban Meyer arrived and immediately used terms like "nonfunctional" and "clown show" to describe the team's passing game, terms that couldn't be argued after the team leaders each had 14 catches in 13 games a season ago.
Now, after more than 40 practices since 2011 mercifully came to an end at the conclusion of the Gator Bowl, there's not quite an "American Idol" in the group, but there are two players who seem to have risen above the rest – junior Corey Brown and sophomore Devin Smith.
Now, if this were "Last Comic Standing," the winner would likely be Smith, whose penchant for impressions kept viewers laughing throughout ESPN's All-Access shows during training camp.
Of course, this is football, not "Survivor," so there is just one big alliance and no one has been voted off the island. And in that regard, the playmaking skills of the fleet-footed Brown and the equally athletic Smith have made them into starters as the team goes into the Saturday opener against Miami (Ohio).
The two have progressed so much each said they know they're ready heading into the battle against the RedHawks.
"It's kind of a feeling you get," Brown said. "You know deep down inside when you're ready to play and you're not ready to play. We scrimmage each other all the time, high tempo. You know if you can make this certain amount of plays against certain people, that's when you know you're ready."
The two have received praise from Meyer, whose blunt criticism to the entire receivers unit throughout much of the spring and into the beginning of fall was a motivating factor.
"It did get to us," Smith admitted. "Every single day after practice, we were like, ‘Man, Urban is on us,' but we stayed positive and kept doing what we had to do to get better, working on routes and throwing with the quarterbacks."
Brown and Smith aren't the only players to have made steps forward at the wide receiver spot. Meyer sounded mostly pleased with the group and its progress under receivers coach Zach Smith while talking at his Monday press conference, and converted tight end Jacob Stoneburner, true freshman spring game standout Michael Thomas, tall target Tyrone Williams, junior Chris Fields and returning starter Verlon Reed – who missed the second half of 2011 with a knee injury – have all had varying levels of praise as camp has gone on.
But Brown and Smith seem to be the heads of the class thus far, and that's not a huge surprise. Both came to Ohio State as highly rated players with athletic skills that jump off the page, and each tied for the team lead in catches a year ago.
Brown has seemingly struggled with the transition to a full-time wideout since arriving at OSU and playing in 2010, but he hopes to be a more consistent playmaker going forward.
"I've put in the extra work even during camp," he said. "I try not to miss a rep. I try not to miss a practice, and I haven't missed one yet. I'm just trying to be everything (Meyer) wants me to be. I'm better at route-running and understanding the game. I'm just becoming a better all-around player."
Cornerback Travis Howard said he's seen major growth in Brown, whose speed has a chance to shine through in OSU's new spread offense.
"Aw, Philly. He's their playmaker on offense right now," Howard said. "They try to get him the ball any chance they can. I knew he has the capabilities of doing that, too. I feel like the scheme and the offensive style that they run, it best fits him. It allows him to make more plays, and it allows him to get in open space, which he's good in.
"I'm happy they came in with this scheme of offense and they're actually getting him the ball because he's a big-time playmaker. He's made numerous plays throughout this whole camp, so I'm actually excited to see how he goes on Saturday."
Smith, meanwhile, has already proven himself as a big-play man. The Ohio 100-meter and long jump champion his senior year at Massillon (Ohio) Washington averaged 21.0 yards per catch last year, including a 40-yard game winner in the Wisconsin contest.
But he disappeared for long swaths of the season as a freshman, and it was clear from the beginning that Meyer wanted to see more out of the multitalented threat.
"In the spring, with him on me a lot, it really got to me a little bit," Smith said. "I couldn't stand it and I knew I had to make a change, and I worked very hard in the summer working on my speed and my strength and getting my timing down with Braxton and Kenny."
Brown has been impressed with what his fellow wideout has done.
"He had a phenomenal camp," Brown said. "Physically he was always ready. His whole thing was mentally. He's grown into a man mentally to basically studying all the time now. He's gonna be real good."
So how many catches will the leader have by the end of the year if the top two truly are so improved? For his part, Brown is shooting for the high end.
"80, maybe, depending how much we throw the ball," he said. "That sounds like a good number."