After two separate injuries have robbed the Buckeyes of the services of Ray Small, the sophomore wide receiver will take the field this Saturday for the first time this season.
Sitting at a table at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, Hazell was practically gushing when asked what the 6-0, 182-pound Small can bring to the Ohio State offense.
"He's had a good week of practice," the coach said. "I'm excited for him. Very sharp. He looks pretty sharp. I thought he's playing real fast."
Small's status has been the source of much speculation since he suffered an officially undisclosed lower leg injury (believed to be a high ankle sprain) during fall camp. His injury, coupled with injuries and inconsistent play from juniors Albert Dukes and Devon Lyons, has allowed true freshman Dane Sanzenbacher and Taurian Washington to ascend the depth chart.
On the surface, the attention being paid to Small's status might seem a bit strange. As a true freshman, the alumnus of Cleveland Glenville caught just 8 passes for 68 yards and one touchdown. This season, Sanzenbacher has 3 receptions for 17 yards and 1 touchdown in just his first two games, for example.
But ever since stepping foot on the OSU campus, Small has drawn favorable comparisons to another speedy former Tarblooder: Ted Ginn Jr., a first-round draft pick by the Miami Dolphins after last season.
"He's quick and he's fast," sophomore safety Kurt Coleman said. "You definitely have to give him cushion because if not, you'll get burnt. He definitely brings a different dimension to the offense. It's kind of like Ted Ginn. You definitely can do a lot of things with him."
Hazell said Small has that type of potential but is not yet where Ginn was last season as the team's top wide receiver.
Head coach Jim Tressel listed Small as "90 to 95 percent" healthy before OSU's game against Akron in week two, but Hazell said the decision was made to keep him out and ensure that he was 100 percent healthy when he hit the field.
Last season, Small reportedly gave the OSU defense fits while working on the scout team.
"He has great ability," junior cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. "He's smart and he knows the offense. Last year he used to run some scout for us, he used to be on the scout team, and he used to make us miss every time. We used to get in trouble because of him all the time, so I feel like if he can do it against us I'm pretty sure he can do it against anybody else."
In addition to his duties at wide receiver, Small is expected to step in on special teams. Hazell said he will enter the rotation to return punts and could also see time returning kickoffs – two areas in which he excelled during the spring kick scrimmage.
He is not guaranteed a starting spot at the wide receiver position, however. Small is listed as the No. 3 wide receiver behind sophomore Brian Hartline and Sanzenbacher, in that order.
As he enters the rotation, Hazell said the Buckeyes will primarily use five wideouts – although nine will make the trip to Washington. Those other four are Brian Robiskie, Hartline, Sanzenbacher and Washington, with Lyons and Dukes among those on the outside looking in. They are joined by freshman Devon Torrence, who has still impressed Hazell with what he has demonstrated in a short time after missing summer workouts while playing professional baseball and enduring a position change.
The two juniors have both battled injuries through fall camp – Dukes had a hand injury while Lyons injured his ankle – that have prevented them from making any sort of significant impact.
"You can't miss two or three days or a week and then expect to be at the top of your game," Hazell said. "Early they both missed considerable time."
Those problems, coupled with the ability of both Sanzenbacher and Washington to quickly learn the playbook, has allowed the depth chart to change from where it was when fall camp broke. Hazell said the two freshman are already at the stage he felt they would be in "week five or six."
Until he sees real game action, the Buckeyes are looking at the abilities Small has demonstrated to them during the past two years – when healthy.
"We'd throw him a little two-yard stop and he'd turn around, catch the ball, shake the whole defense and score a touchdown," sophomore center Jim Cordle said. "That's what he brings. Dane is kind of a natural quiet guy, who can go downfield and do some different things but Ray is a guy that's real shifty: Give him the ball and watch what he can do."