Small Wants To Shine On And Off Field

Ray Small's tale of promise, potential and problems is well-known to most Ohio State fans. Now, the senior wideout says he's left the latter of those three things in the past. In addition, he's ready to turn the first two into production as a senior while showing what he can do on and off the field.

During his first three years at Ohio State, Ray Small's story has been one of what could have been.

What could the Ohio State wideout have done had he not suffered a season-ending concussion after finding playing time during his freshman season of 2006? What kind of 2008 season could Small have put up had he not run afoul of head coach Jim Tressel's rules after three standout games to start the year? What could have happened had Small not ended up suspended for two games at the end of the campaign?

There was nearly one other: What could the Buckeyes have been missing this spring and fall had the former Cleveland Glenville standout chosen to leave the program during the offseason?

Small admitted that he considered such a track after his tumultuous 2008 season came to a close.

"(Leaving) was a thought going through my mind, but I fought through it and couldn't leave like that," he said. "I couldn't leave as the bad guy."

With his return, he'll have a chance to make an impact one final time as the lone senior among a group of wideouts that is fairly raw. The Buckeyes lost 63 of the 117 catches made by wideouts and 12 of the 14 touchdowns from 2008 when Brian Robiskie exhausted his eligibility and Brian Hartline chose to leave early for the NFL draft.

Through spring practice, Small, junior Dane Sanzenbacher and sophomore DeVier Posey have moved ahead as the top three targets to replace the pair of Brians. For his part, Small is sounding like a leader both on and off the field as the wideouts group continues to try to get in sync with quarterback Terrelle Pryor.

"That's the reason I came back for my senior year, so I could show that I can do what I can do on and off the field," he said.

When asked about his on-field play that looks more consistent during the spring, Small showed a high standard by admitting that he's still not where he wants to be.

"I still have a couple of missed assignments, a couple of things like that," he said. "I still have to polish my game up a little more."

Off the field, he's come to grips with his sanction-filled 2008 season.

"They were young mistakes," he said. "It's definitely in the past."

Fans and reporters have heard those words before, especially as Small began gearing up for a 2008 season most thought could be a breakout campaign for him.

He looked to be beyond his problems that included a forced jersey number change from No. 4 to 82 last spring and his curious placement in the '08 media guide with the walk-ons when he led the team 14 catches and returned a punt for a critical touchdown during the season's first three games.

But then he mysteriously disappeared from the team's fourth game of the year against Troy, playing just one play and running an end around for a loss of a yard. Small ended up with just four catches over the next five games before being suspended from games against Northwestern and Illinois.

At the time, Small's father, Ken, went to the local media to complain about the team's treatment of his son, telling writers that he couldn't see his son playing for Ohio State again.

With the benefit of hindsight, the younger Small – who said that he was surprised by his father's words to the media – said most of the discipline dispensed by the coaching staff was fair.

"At first I felt like everybody was messing with me, you know what I mean? But in reality it was all my fault," Ray said. "Most of the things that happened were my fault because I did stupid things. You live and you learn."

Small's redemption started in his first game back, the regular-season finale against Michigan. The coaches put him back on the field for five punt returns, one of which he brought back 80 yards to set up a touchdown.

"It was most definitely redeeming," he said before adding a laugh. "I looked kind of slow. I was cold."

Now, the November circus looks like water under the bridge for Small and the coaching staff.

"I think everybody's rooting for him to do it the right way," receivers coach Darrell Hazell said. "It's a win-win situation if he does. It's going to help us, it's going to help him. Hopefully he can keep doing it the right way."

Hazell added that Small has improved during the spring, showing his trademark explosiveness and mixing it with consistency.

The Buckeyes would love to see that. Small showcased his skills as a true freshman in 2006, making eight catches for 68 yards and a touchdown before a vicious hit on a swing pass from Minnesota's Dominic Jones ended his season.

He returned for 20 catches, 267 yards and two touchdowns as the third receiver in 2007. Those numbers dropped to 18 total grabs for 149 yards last season, though he made a mark on special teams with the Big Ten's best punt return average.

Small's plan is to put everything together on and off the field in 2009, erasing the phrase "could have been" from his Ohio State biography.

"I'm definitely ready. That's what I came back for, to be ready," Small said. "I've never been on the field long enough to show everybody what I can do. It's just like bits and pieces. Hopefully I'll be out there all year so I can show everybody."

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