Darrell Hazell said this season's group of receivers could be the best he's had at Ohio State.
That's quite a statement looking back at some of the players the OSU assistant head coach and wide receivers coach has had since joining Jim Tressel's staff in 2004. Since coming to Columbus, Hazell has coached the likes of Ted Ginn Jr., Santonio Holmes and Anthony Gonzalez - all of whom are currently playing in the NFL.
Yet with the potential depth and talent of this season's unit, Hazell and his receivers think this could be a special year.
"Until we prove ourselves on the field, we can't really be the best, but we have the potential to be," junior Brian Hartline said. "Three, four, five years from now as we move down the line we might look back and say, ‘Wow. That was a really deep wide receiver core.' "
Hazell inherited an impressive unit when he came to Ohio State from Rutgers in 2004. Current Pittsburgh Steeler Santonio Holmes led the group that season, hauling in 55 catches for 769 yards and seven touchdowns. Ginn, then a freshman, caught 25 passes for 359 yards and two scores to go with his four punt return touchdowns. That unit also featured a young Gonzalez, who made eight receptions in eight games for 179 yards and two scores.
Holmes led the unit once again in 2005 with 977 yards on 53 receptions with 11 scores. Ginn upped his reception yardage to 803 on 51 receptions and four scores. Gonzalez added 28 catches for 373 yards and three scores.
Ginn and Gonzalez formed a formidable duo a year later, combining for 110 receptions for 1,515 yards and 17 scores. Hartline and Brian Robiskie also had solid seasons in 2006. Robiskie, then a sophomore, was third in receptions with 29 for 383 yards and five scores. Redshirt freshman Hartline added 17 catches for 256 yards and two touchdowns.
With Ginn and Gonzalez, as well as Heisman Trophy quarterback Troy Smith, gone to the NFL, Robiskie and Hartline were looked upon to pick up the slack last season. Robiskie proved to be the top deep target for new starting quarterback Todd Boeckman, hauling in a team-high 55 passes for 935 yards and 11 scores. Hartline added 694 yards on 52 receptions and six scores.
Robiskie and Hartline headline this year's unit, and other receiving threats such as Ray Small, Dane Sanzenbacher and Taurian Washington add to its depth. Small and Sanzenbacher have battled for the No. 3 receiver position during the preseason, while Hazell said Washington and freshmen DeVier Posey and Lamaar Thomas will vie for the fourth and fifth slots. The depth has added to the lofty aspirations referenced in the preseason.
"We know between (Hartline and I) we have the chance to make a lot of plays," Robiskie said. "We know that with us we have three or four guys that can go out and make plays from the receiver spot."
Adding to the unit's depth is its freshman - Posey, Thomas and Jake Stoneburner and Lamaar Thomas. Posey was an All-Ohio receiver for Cincinnati LaSalle and played in the U.S. Army All-America Bowl after a senior season in which he had 47 receptions for 770 yards and seven touchdowns. Stoneburner also played in the U.S. Army All-America Bowl and made 74 receptions for 1,267 yards and 15 scores for Dublin (Ohio) Coffman in 2007. Thomas totaled 1,690 all-purpose yards as a senior for Fort Washington (Md.) Friendly with 20 career touchdowns.
Each of the freshmen have made an impression on their new teammates.
"They have some physical talents, but nonetheless they're really coachable," Hartline said. "After every play they come up and ask, ‘Was that right?' … They take criticism really well. They want to get better and that's the biggest thing for me with this freshman class."
With a mixture of veterans and newcomers, Hazell said he is excited to see how his unit will fare this fall.
"I'm really pleased at where the guys are right now," Hazell said. "I think the thing we need to work on is getting guys playing time early in the season like the older guys did when they were young. Robiskie played probably 10, 15 plays when he was a freshman and Hartline played the same in his redshirt freshman year.
"We've got to do the same thing with these freshmen. We've got a wealth of talent here and I'm really pleased. It's going to be a fun year."
Not only fun, but potentially special.