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COLUMBUS, Ohio - Considering that no player on the Ohio State football team amassed more than 14 catches a season ago, perhaps no position on the Buckeyes' roster carries more question marks heading into 2012 than the wide receivers.
But while Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith is hesitant to refer to any of his current players as "game ready" just yet, he does like the progress that he's seen from the position throughout his first fall camp in Columbus.
"Really, the group as a whole has taken the right steps. Are they there yet? No. But practice 15 or 16, they're about where they should be," Smith said of his position group. "We have to get them right in the next week and a half before the first game, but they're coming."
That's encouraging news for first-year Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer, who in the spring referred to his receivers as "non-functional." Forced to name starters at the end of spring practice, Meyer gave nods to Corey Brown, Devin Smith, and Evan Spencer. Smith said that so far, it appears that his boss made the right call.
"Right now the guys that have had really solid fall camps I'd say are Philly Brown, he has done an unbelievable job and is a different player really than he was in the spring," Smith said. "And then there's Devin Smith, who is a guy that has really come along."
While Smith appears to be making the natural progression that players typically make from their freshman year to their sophomore season, the progress of Brown is a promising sign for the junior who Meyer has repeatedly said that he'd like to see more from. After being nicked up in the spring, Brown has finally been at full strength in the fall and is finally showing the Ohio State staff just what he's capable of.
"He has done an unbelievable job and is a different player really than he was in the spring," Smith said of Brown. "He was hurt in the spring so I probably didn't have an opportunity to see the hundred percent Philly Brown but he is a hundred percent right now and he looks pretty good."
The Buckeyes' third starter at receiver, Spencer, has also shown improvements from his freshman season, but was forced to miss some time in fall camp after being carted off the field due to a bone bruise.
"Evan's knee is fine. He had a bone bruise and he's back going," Smith said. "He looks good. Obviously it wasn't a setback, he was just out for a couple of practices."
Spencer's injury has opened up a the opportunity for other receivers to take advantage of first-team reps with the Buckeyes' offense. After catching 12 balls for 131 yards in the Ohio State spring game, true freshman Michael Thomas appears to have taken advantage of those reps.
"Mike is a guy who works hard. He has never taken a day off and he's always going to put in extra work," Smith said. "Hopefully he'll be where we want him to be and where you'd expect him to be after having a good spring for his first college practice/scrimmage."
An potential X-factor in the OSU receiving corps is redshirt sophomore Tyrone Williams. At 6-foot-6 and 229 pounds, Williams certainly has the physical tools to be an impact player at the college level, and Smith said that he's now starting to combine those with an improved mental focus.
"Tyrone Williams, this spring was about as average of a player that you could have had, not because of talent level, just because of how he practiced," Smith said. "He still has a way to go, but he is a kid that is kind of drinking the kool-aide right now. He's bought in and he's doing things he did not do the first six months we were here and it is encouraging."
In addition to Brown, Smith, Spencer, Thomas, and Williams, the Ohio State receivers have gotten a boost from the return of Verlon Reed, who missed the second half of 2011 with a torn ACL, and the addition of Jake Stoneburner, who is now listed as a wide receiver, but will make his presence felt from multiple positions on the field.
Although the Buckeyes' receivers certainly appear to be in a better place than they were just six months ago, Meyer said that there's still progress left to be made.
"Not Ohio State caliber yet," Meyer said of the OSU receivers. "The effort is much better."
How far that effort will carry the Buckeyes remains to be seen, but Smith is confident that they'll look like a whole new group by the time their season opener on Sept. 1 roles around.
"There's definitely pressure. Obviously it has been world-renowned from the head coach to me to anyone that talks about it. There's pressure on the group," Smith said. "It is a very positive thing for the group and some individual kids. They see it as an opportunity to be more of a focal point of the offense and catch footballs and actually touch the ball more than 14 times in a season."
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