Devin Smith hauled in that touchdown pass, the start of the route of the Badgers that was the first showcase of how good the 2014 Buckeyes actually were. It was no surprise as any time the ball traveled over 20 yards in the air, odds were it was headed towards one of the greatest deep-ball receiver in Ohio State history.
Smith led Ohio State in receiving yards last year with 931 and a staggering 28.2 yards per catch, the latter number setting a program single-season record and nearly doubling the next best mark on the team (Michael Thomas averaged 14.8 per catch). Smith finished his career averaging 20.7 yards per catch, the fourth-best career average among Buckeye receivers.
As good as the numbers are Smith did even more. His ability to take the lid off the defense opened up running room for Ezekiel Elliott and it was no coincidence that the running back’s otherworldly postseason came with the constant threat of the big-armed Jones hitting Smith deep down the field.
“It loosens everything up,” fellow senior receiver Evan Spencer said late in the season. “When you’ve got a receiver who can run by people so handily and just handle things like that so well, it works so much as an offense. It spreads them out, they have to account for him or on occasion they have to double him. If you double him you have to take someone else off of another responsibility and the offense starts moving and we just start going from there.”
As far as deep-ball threats go, the Buckeyes have to start over. Smith is gone and while Ohio State has some proven talent at wide receiver, there is no clear heir apparent to the role he played in the Buckeyes national title season. There are threats that could emerge and surely Elliott’s now-established greatness could help to open things up deep.
Michael Thomas is back after leading the Buckeyes in catches with 54, amassing 799 yards. His 14.8 yards per catch was a distant second to Smith. He had a long reception of 79 yards, but that came on a slant route against Michigan State. Thomas caught that ball just seven yards from the line of scrimmage and took it to the house. While that skill is immensely valuable, and Thomas is the most complete receiver on the Ohio State roster, it’s not the same as catching a ball 40 yards down field.
Jalin Marshall is also contending for that role. Back after a productive year in the slot, he has been working on the outside this spring.
“I think for me along with Michael Thomas we can replace Devin,” Marshall said. “You know, you can’t really replace Devin, but you can use two receivers if you’ve got two guys that are good enough to do that. I think me and Michael Thomas, we’ve excelled in that role, just going out there and making that deep-ball catch.”
As Marshall said, the Buckeyes are not going to find a Smith clone. It’s unlikely that any player on the 2015 Ohio State team will have 12 touchdown catches averaging 39.1 yards per score, but perhaps a combination of players can provide a similar threat.
Noah Brown has by all accounts had a great spring and the big-bodied receiver has slimmed down and gotten faster, perhaps preparing him to be a deep threat. Young guys like Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon will all be vying to help fill that role.
“Last year (Smith) was definitely the guy to go to when there was deep ball situation,” Brown said. “I think we’ve got a lot of speed and the young guys, Parris and Terry, Johnnie, and I am getting a little better at it so I think that I could become a threat with the deep ball. It’s going to be interesting to see, we’ve got a lot of speed.”
While Ohio State has options, when the ball goes deep for the Buckeyes next season it seems it won’t be as obvious who is on the other end.