Buckeyes’ WRs out to answer doubters
COLUMBUS (AP) — The criticism from head coach Urban Meyer got so bad that about the only respite for Ohio State’s wide receivers was when they were united in their misery.
Maybe that was what Meyer wanted.
“It did get to us,” said the starter at one spot, Devin Smith. “Every single day after practice we were, like, ‘Man, Urban is on us.”’
Meyer seldom failed to take a shot at his receiving corps from the minute he first saw it in the spring. He called the passing game from a year ago “non-functional” and “inadequate.” He continually complained that he couldn’t find a single playmaker among his pass-catchers. He questioned their heart, their effort, their skill.
Now, as the 18th-ranked Buckeyes draw closer to their Sept. 1 opener against Miami (Ohio), the verbal assaults have softened somewhat. Meyer has come around.
“Not where we need to be, but so much improved,” Meyer said this week. “You just enjoy being around them. I didn’t enjoy being around noncompetitive (players). They weren’t competing in the spring. They’re competing now. It means something to them. That’s kind of neat to see.”
For the receivers, it’s almost as if they’ve survived a trauma together.
“I think coach Meyer said those things to get us to step up,” said Evan Spencer, another starter. “We needed it and we took it on as a challenge and I love that. The fact he expects so much of us, deep down, makes us realize we need to get out there and do our thing. I’m glad to see that as a unit we’ve been taking on the challenge positively.”
Tom Herman, the new offensive coordinator, has noticed the transformation. He has a succinct description of the quality possessed by those in the running to be the playmaker in the pedal-to-the-metal offense.
“Potential. That’s probably the biggest word. We all know in this game that potential just means that you haven’t done it yet,” he said. “So at least we have some glimmer of hope at that position, which is encouraging. Now it’s up to those guys and the coaches to (make sure) that potential turns into performance.”
There honestly wasn’t much performance in 2011. Leading receivers Smith, Corey Brown and Jake Stoneburner, all of whom return, managed just 14 catches apiece all season. To put that into perspective, one of the Buckeyes’ opponents a year ago, Toledo’s Eric Page, averaged 10 receptions a game.
“We kind of look at this as a new chapter in our life,” Brown said of the lessons learned from those sorry stats. “We had the 14 (catches for the leaders). But that’s last year. We’ve moved on now. Coach Meyer really emphasized that we press ‘restart.’ As long as we give him our careers and do what he wants us to do, he’ll put us in the right situation.”
It wasn’t just the receivers, however. The line surrendered twice as many sacks as the Buckeyes’ defense (46-23). Freshman quarterback Braxton Miller looked lost much of the time, frequently made bad throws with flawed technique. And the receivers didn’t exactly have glue on their fingers.
The passing attack ranked 115th of the 120 FBS schools, completing just 125 passes in 13 games. Russell Wilson of Big Ten rival Wisconsin had 100 more completions for almost twice as many yards and touchdowns — with the same number of interceptions (4).
Clearly, the output was anemic. So it’s no surprise that Meyer, unveiling a pass-happy offense, was more than a little bit shocked that the Buckeyes had so much difficulty playing catch.
With another year of maturation for Miller, and better protection, that means vast improvement has to also be made out wide.
All along, Meyer has worried that Ohio State didn’t have an athletic game-breaker. He’s still not certain what he has, although he pleased that the receivers have made a U-turn in terms of competitiveness.
“We’re certainly not perfect. But our guys are trying and we’re doing decent,” he said this week. “The area where we’re much improved is throwing and catching. I know I’ve been beating them to death and probably they deserved it but they’re much improved.”
Part of the reason it’s taken the receivers so long is because they’ve had to do so much more than they did before.
“You have to be mentally tough to get through it, but we have the right people around here to get through it,” backup Verlon Reed said. “We came a long way, but we still have more work to do. Our job description changes in many ways, not just catching but also blocking and making sure you know your assignments. We’re always looking for faults.”
It’s not like they needed help finding the faults. But at least now they’re also catching some compliments, too.
Having gotten through so many bleak moments, the future suddenly looks bright.
“In the spring, with him on me a lot, I couldn’t stand it,” Smith said. “I knew I had to make a change and I worked very hard in the summer working on my speed and my strength, (playing catch with the quarterbacks) and getting the timing down. It carried over to camp and we had a great camp.
“The offense is getting better every single day and I’m looking forward to everything.”
Rusty Miller can be reached at http://twitter.com/rustymillerap