There have been injuries, suspension and general doghouse issues, but one thing can't be questioned – big things can happen when Small gets the ball in his hands.
The latest example came Saturday at Penn State. Small had two punt returns of more than 40 yards, each of which set up short touchdown drives for the Buckeyes in their key 24-17 win against No. 11 Penn State in Happy Valley.
"It's huge," a beaming Small said after the game. "It's a big thing to be on the team, a great tradition, and to come back and just to redeem myself. I take this win as like a redemption."
Head coach Jim Tressel might go along with that thought. Tressel joked Tuesday that Ray has been given "more shots than LeBron (James) takes" during his time in OSU's program to get it right, but the ninth-year coach added that Small's problems have been more minor than malicious.
Equally important is how the Clevelander has responded during his time at OSU, especially now that he's as senior.
"Ray has grown and hung in there and taken it right in the nose and made it very obvious to everyone involved that he wants to figure out a way to help," Tressel said. "He's, in his own way, I think shown some guys, and I've heard him in whether team settings, unit settings, whichever say to guys, 'You don't want to do some of the things I did and that takes a little bit of leadership in its own right.' "
While Small has been working as more of a leader in the locker room, the latest twists and turns in his career this season have revolved around his propensity to fumble punts. He had dropped three in the six games before the Penn State contest, two of which were recovered by Big Ten opponents in Illinois and Purdue.
Those muffs had led some to question if the senior should be on the field, but Tressel had shown no signs of wavering in his commitment to the speedster, much to his psychological benefit.
"They don't really get to me," Small said about his earlier fumbles. "Nobody's perfect. It's going to happen. When it happens, you just have to be a playmaker. You have to be a player. That's what players do – when they get down, they make big things happen."
Small had done the same before. Last year, he broke off an 82-yard punt return to set up a touchdown against Michigan in his first game back from a two-game suspension.
One of his muffed punts this year came in the Buckeyes' previous game against New Mexico State, but that was clearly never in Small's head going into the game against Penn State. He had to know he'd get chances considering Penn State's opponents had averaged 14.9 yards per return entering the game.
Small didn't wait long to strike, catching Jeremy Boone's first punt – a line drive – at the 50-yard line. Small immediately raced upfield through a seam and raced away from a diving tackle attempt by Knowledge Timmons to hit the left sideline, getting as far as the 9 before being tackled by Navorro Bowman after cutting inside to avoid Boone's tackle attempt.
"You knew this was going to be a field-position game," Tressel said. "No one was going to drive up and down the field. It just wasn't going to happen. So every bit of field position we could get – especially at the outset – (was important). And then we got it in the end zone."
"That was big," Small added before returning his attention to his head coach. "That's what Coach Tressel loves, he loves special teams. He always says special teams wins games, so anything I can do on special teams to help the team is always huge."
On the second play after Small's return, quarterback Terrelle Pryor scrambled for a 7-yard touchdown to give OSU the early lead.
Small's second big return of the day set up the scoring drive that iced the game. On the final play of the third quarter, Boone's punt boomed 56 yards in the air, forcing Small back to his 8-yard line.
After catching the ball, Small stopped backpedaling and hit the jets, veering toward the right side of the field. He picked up a block from Brian Rolle at the 15 and then started back left, exploding through a cutback lane and by PSU linebacker Josh Hull at the 20. From there, Small broke an arm tackle at the 25 and appeared to be gone before somehow running into Boone at the Penn State 47-yard line.
"I didn't even see the punter," Small admitted later. "I just saw my teammates and I just saw the end zone, and my eyes got big. I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I'm out of here.' And then the punter came out of nowhere, but it was still great for the team."
As for how much grief he would catch from the team for allowing the 5-9, 168-pound Boone to bring him down, Small said, "A lot. I'm already catching it. It was a good run and it helped the team, but getting caught by the punter is something I do not like."
Small finished the day with 130 return yards on seven tries, an 18.6-yard average, and one catch for 7 yards. But his two punt returns were a pair of the biggest game-changing plays in one of OSU's most satisfying wins in recent years.
"That's big for Ray," wideout DeVier Posey said. "I was excited for the kid. I was hoping he'd break one, but those punt returns were definite momentum changers for us."