Devin Smith Has a New Role, Meyer Wants More from His Old One
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Devin Smith looked like he was shot out of a cannon as he went screaming down the sideline Saturday night under the lights in State College.
If he had the football in his hands, there wasn’t a person among the 107+ thousand in Beaver Stadium who could have run him down.
Only this time, Smith wasn’t streaking towards the end zone for a game-winning touchdown. He was lining himself up to make a hit on Penn State’s return man.
Devin Smith (15) and Christian Bryant (2) take aim on the Penn State punt returner
Photo by Jim Davidson
“Being a gunner on punt is no different than playing receiver and running a go-route, you just need to get off a press man, and get to the returner,” said Ohio State assistant Zach Smith, who coaches the receivers and also the punt block team for head coach Urban Meyer.
“I think he did an unbelievable job on Saturday. He's really done a great job all year.”
While he leads the team with six touchdown catches this season, Devin Smith has also recorded five tackles as a special teams gunner. He had a pair of them in the first half against Penn State this past week, but his main job is forcing opponents to fair catch the ball instead of returning against Ohio State’s punt team.
“When he first told me, I was like, 'Wow, I've never had to cover a punt,' ” Smith said this week.
“But he just told me to just run down there and make sure they fair catch it every single time, and that's what I've done.”
Smith’s primary job for the Buckeyes has been to serve as this team’s “go get it guy,” as Meyer called him earlier in the year. His 23 catches are second on the team, but nearly half of what junior Corey Brown (44) has managed in the same amount of games.
Yet Smith leads the team with 505 receiving yards this season and an average of 22 yards per catch, which is tops in the Big Ten and fourth in the country among all players.
“Being that he's one of the fastest guys on the team, if he wasn't the gunner, I'd be disappointed in him,” Zach Smith said Monday.
“He's been phenomenal at it and I was fired up for him to do that. I'd like to think I taught him that, the plays he made making tackles.”
Smith actually hurt himself on the first tackle. It was a perfect hit on the return man, but Ohio State’s sophomore wideout was down on the ground for a number of seconds before he finally walked off the field with a pair of trainers at his side.
His right arm went numb and tingly on the hit, but it was only a stinger, and Smith was back out there on the next punt for the Buckeyes.
“I like it a lot,” Smith said of his new role.
“We trying to be the best punt team in America and I just go down there as fast as I can and make sure they don't return the ball.”
The Buckeyes actually haven’t been very good in that department this season, not compared to what Meyer’s teams did at Florida, or what his former assistant Dan Mullen is doing at Mississippi State.
“Ideally we've had years where I think one year we had 13 total return yards,” Meyer said Monday.
“Because our belief is, you have 6.5 seconds, if you're hitting the ball 4.5 seconds hang time, and 2 seconds get off, that's 6.5 seconds to cover 40 yards. You put really fast people out there and force catches. We're not doing that right now.”
Meyer put the blame squarely on the shoulders of senior punter Ben Buchanan for a lack of both distance and hang time on his punts this season. While Mullen’s Bulldogs have allowed zero punt return yards in eight games this season, Meyer’s Buckeyes have allowed 125 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“We're not there because we don't have the hang time or the distance,” Meyer said.
“I'm just worried about the returners. So we're jury-rigging a system, and I won't saying it's working very well.”
It worked well on Saturday against Penn State, but that doesn’t mean Meyer was overly pleased with the performance of his star gunner. Certainly he did what Meyer asked him to do on special teams, but Devin Smith did not have a catch against the Nittany Lions.
He has just six catches over his last five games, and while three of them have gone for touchdowns, Smith also dropped a pair of scores in Ohio State’s 52-49 win over Indiana.
Part of Smith’s dropoff in production has been the slow progress of sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller, who took a step backwards this past week in his passing fundamentals according to Meyer. Some of it, though, is directly on the receivers to play better.
“I thought they were making strides early in the season, but that’s kind of slowed down recently,” Meyer said Thursday.
“We need to get them going again, and some of that is Braxton, but they need to play better.”
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