A combination of veteran leadership, an influx of young talent and experience gained during the undefeated 2012 season has changed the outlook for a receiving unit that, just a year ago, had been saddled by OSU coaches with the moniker of nonfunctional.
Now, far from dysfunctional and continually growing in head coach Urban Meyer's spread offense, the receivers have reached the point where they're comfortable experimenting with their routes, jukes and moves, and also relishing in the heightened expectations.
After the Buckeyes' Saturday morning practice at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, receivers coach Zach Smith said his players have slowly become functional and now have the potential to be "consistently dominant."
"I think it's natural development," Smith said of the unit's growth. "Just a year ago, I told everyone it was a young group that needed to grow up and develop and get better, and that's something that they've done. Fast forward a year, they've had trials and tribulations, had hard times, had great successes, and so they have grown and learned from mistakes to the point where now they're able to be a mature group and able to use those learning points in the past to make sure they don't happen again and to grow from them."
Having a year in the system has made a considerable difference in the players' approach to their craft, said junior Evan Spencer, who also admitted that he and his fellow receivers were slow to grasp Meyer's offense.
Just four players nabbed double-digit catches in 2012 for the Buckeyes (Corey Brown 60, Devin Smith 30, Jake Stoneburner 16, Spencer 12), and top-heavy production like that could become less likely as returning veterans, Spencer and others continue to get comfortable in the system.
"Now that we have a year under out belt," Spencer said, "all that stuff we got through last year that we had to learn last year is now just experience and we remember, ‘Oh, I may have ran this last year, let me change it up a little bit, get open on this route compared to the last time I ran it.'
"(The offense is) so much smoother. Everybody's flowing faster. We all know what our assignments are. We're reacting instead of trying to think. That's the biggest thing we've improved on since last year."
Competition appears to be driving this train, too. Spencer's part of that – Zach Smith said that Spencer is increasingly consistent in his play as opposed to previously only showing flashes of promise, adding, "(Spencer is) one receiver that I'm most pleased with the step he took."
Meanwhile, the player that has, perhaps, turned the most heads and incited the most competition amongst receivers is freshman Dontre Wilson.
The DeSoto, Texas, product was widely praised by OSU players and coaches alike throughout his first week in the program. Wilson capped the week Saturday by earning the right to have the black stripe removed from his helmet as part of a Meyer-instituted ritual to signify when a freshman is officially accepted as a Buckeye.
Wilson could ascend to meaningful playing time quickly in 2013 and, because of the quality competition featured at the receiver spot, he's not the only freshman in that position, Spencer said.
"We've got a lot of young guys that are really good," Spencer said. "We've got a lot of competition and that's actually what's driving myself and everybody else to continue to get better. As a group, I can tell just by looking at practice, whether if it's us as the (starters) or the (backups), that we just look so competitive and we're trying to get to competitive excellence and I think us as a receiver group are doing pretty well."
Brown agreed with Spencer, saying, "I want the competition. It's always good."
For all the optimism among the receivers, there's still work to be done, as Zach Smith said there are more steps to take before he officially considers the group dominant. Brown said he thinks the receivers need to prepare themselves for adverse moments when he and his unit-mates could be called on to make a big play.
Unlike this time last year, the receivers seem to have more positives than negatives to focus on, and their aspirations are much higher as a result.
"If we keep doing what we're doing and try to eliminate the silly mistakes," Brown said, "we can be one of the top offenses in the country."