High level college football was always the plan for Smith, but that dream took a while to materialize. He had multiple Division I offers as a standout high school player, but missed his senior season at Akron Buchtel High School after he was ruled ineligible by the Ohio High School Athletic Association. He was forced to go the junior college route, taking a one year stint at both Grand Rapids (Mich.) Community College and East Mississippi Community College before enrolling at Ohio State as four-star prospect in the 2013 recruiting class.
After redshirting last year, he was finally eligible to take the field as a Buckeye this season. But he wasn’t ready.
“He really was a guy that thought an opportunity was going to come and his career and existence as a football player was going to explode,” receivers coach Zach Smith said. “It was going to happen.
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“Going in to the Michigan State game he thought that was his opportunity but he didn’t prepare like he needed to, to 1. Get the opportunity and 2. Make the opportunity a success for him. After that game, not really doing a lot on offense and beginning this illustrious career that he thought would begin, he bought in to the idea that it’s not just going to happen, you have to make it happen and grind and work every day in practice, in film.”
By his own admission, Corey has not had the season he envisioned. He has 18 receptions for 179 yards this season, totals that rank sixth and eighth on the team, respectively. He has not scored a touchdown in any of the Buckeyes 14 games.
The Michigan State game was supposed to be a breakout game for the Buckeyes, and it was. Corey, however, was shutout as a receiver, not registering a single catch.
After that game, head coach Urban Meyer approached the junior college transfer about his poor practice habits, something that absolutely had to change. Corey said that is when he turned the corner, buying in to a team-first mentality.
His play has reflected the change as half of his receptions this season have come in the five games since the Michigan State game, though the biggest difference has been in attitude. His teammates took notice.
“I’ve seen unbelievable change in him,” senior wide receiver Evan Spencer said. “We’ve all talked and we are really close in the wide receiver room and I think that closeness we have in the receiver room, I think it’s really developed an extreme family atmosphere in our room. When we developed that, Corey’s play just went to the next level, offense and special teams. He wants to do things for us. He’s out there making plays not for himself, but for me or for Devin (Smith) or for Mike (Thomas) or for Taylor Decker. That kind of perception of how to play the game that he has developed is really why he has been playing so well as of late, I think.”
As Spencer said, Corey has begun contributing on special teams, highlighted by his play against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Entering the game with just one tackle to his name, the gunner had four big hits on special teams against the Crimson Tide.
For a coach that preaches special teams above all else, Meyer had high praise for Corey.
“Corey Smith is a junior college transfer that probably has never been on kickoff in his life,” the head coach said. “If I had my first draft on kickoff, I’d take him. He had three hits inside the 10-yard line last week against Alabama, and here’s a skinny little receiver from Akron, Ohio, that couldn’t spell kickoff a year ago, and now he’s great at it, and our players appreciate it.”
On Ohio State’s second kickoff of the game, Corey hit the Alabama return man hard, dropping him at the 12-yard line. Later in the first quarter he replicated that play with a tackle at the 10-yard line. He combined with running back Bri’onte Dunn for another big hit on a third-quarter kickoff, stopping the Tide at the 16. Finally, he and cornerback Gareon Conley stopped an Alabama punt returner for no gain with the Buckeyes clinging to a 34-28 lead.
Special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs said the change in Corey has been extreme.
“I can tell you as a special teams player it’s a 180 degree change,” the coach said. “Coach Meyer’s philosophy is very, very clear. You have to start on special teams to start on offense or defense and that’s the gateway to the field. Some kids are resistant to that, they don’t really believe you are going to hold them to that. Coach Meyer is not getting off of that train and he shouldn’t because it makes your special forces that much better.
“You take a great player, a great athlete like Corey Smith and you get him to focus his attention on that part of the game in addition to, not at the expense of his attention to wide receiver, and all the sudden you have a dynamic player out there who can be a game changer and make some differences.”
Corey took the long road to Ohio State, traversing 1,875 miles from his high school in Akron to community college stops in Michigan and Mississippi before ending up back in Columbus, just 122 miles from home. When he finally arrived, he thought he was ready. He was wrong.
“It was difficult at first, but then you understand you are doing it for something bigger than yourself,” he said. “At the beginning of the year I feel like I wasn’t, I didn’t take practice as serious as I do now or didn’t understand a lot, but I do now.”