As the Buckeyes prepare to open their season against Youngstown State on Saturday, the two junior wide receivers are nowhere to be found on Ohio State's two-deep. With Anthony Gonzalez and Ted Ginn Jr. both departing to the NFL following their junior seasons, Dukes and Lyons were expected to see significant playing time for the first time this season.
But injuries and inconsistent play have opened the door for two freshmen to crack the two-deep: Dane Sanzenbacher and Taurian Washington, the former of whom is the team's No. 3 wide receiver as sophomore Ray Small continues to battle a high ankle sprain.
"I think the thing that's propelled him above some of the other guys is his ability to learn and retain and apply on the field," OSU wide receivers coach Darrell Hazell said of Sanzenbacher. "That's what his special quality has been."
At the team's photo day early in camp, both Dukes and Lyons spoke of how this season was finally their respective turn to claim some of the spotlight. Both members of OSU's recruiting class of 2003, Dukes was listed a four-star wide receiver prospect by Scout.com while Lyons entered OSU as a three-star safety prospect.
Lyons has battled two position changes and various injuries throughout his career as a Buckeye, while Dukes has been unable to crack a deep depth chart at wide receiver. Now, though, the two have been passed by Sanzenbacher and Washington – for now, at least.
According to sophomore wide receiver Brian Hartline, it is not so much that Lyons and Dukes did something wrong, but rather that the two freshman have simply been that impressive.
"I think that shows the strength of the group more than anything," he said. "I think the idea of the freshmen stepping up and them still playing well isn't a knock on how they are playing. It's tributes to the younger guys."
Both showed potential during the spring game, with Lyons seeming to have the upper hand after a game-high 72 receiving yards on three catches. He has since battled a lower leg injury for most of fall camp.
For Dukes, however, his lack of inclusion on the depth chart is more of a mystery. Hartline said the native of Belle Glade, Fla., might be having some hand or groin issues.
Junior quarterback Todd Boeckman, slated to be the starting quarterback against the Penguins, said it has been a frustrating fall camp for both Dukes and Lyons.
"They've had some tough injuries these last couple years," he said. "They're working really hard at it. They're great players, they've got a lot of athletic ability. They just need to get their break. I think they can make a lot of plays and do a lot of great things."
However, Boeckman added that he has the same confidence throwing to Sanzenbacher and Washington as he does to Lyons or Dukes.
Both Sanzenbacher and Washington were pegged as four-star prospects, and Hazell said both were talented enough to play early at OSU on National Signing Day. Hartline said both have taken advantage of having a full summer to condition with the team and get acclimated to the college game.
While both have risen up the depth chart partially as the result of injuries to older players, Sanzenbacher moved quicker than Washington. With sophomore Ray Small sidelined indefinitely with a high ankle sprain, the 5-11, 175-pound Sanzenbacher surfaced as his primary replacement.
In the team's jersey scrimmage August 18, Sanzenbacher ran with the ones as the No. 3 wide receiver.
"He's good," Hazell said. "Physically he's good too. Obviously you can be a good learner, but he's got all the physical tools he needs to have. He has good speed, good quickness, he gets his hips down, he's got real soft hands, he's got great concentration. The big thing for him is to continue to learn and get beat up a little bit out there on the field and get some experience."
That learning appears to not have taken much time. Boeckman said Sanzenbacher had memorized the playbook before the jersey scrimmage.
Hartline said the biggest key to the development of the freshman has been the fact that Hazell has simplified the offense for them, focusing on key concepts and the big picture to help them get settled.
"If you get the main idea of our plan and you understand what kind of routes to expect, if you have that the rest of it kind of falls into place," he said. "They caught on that pretty early and it benefited them, too."