How far can loyalty go? To what heights can being in the bloodline of Ohio State royalty carry you? At what point does one have to rely on more in order to protect their future?
Being kin to successful and well-liked figures definitely has its advantages, and at Ohio State, it is no different. Being loyal to the people who have taken risks and chances on you, in any walk of life, pays off in the end. You are afforded protections that may not be there for others, for the outsiders, or dissenters.
When Urban Meyer was hired to take over at Ohio State, he filled his staff with names and faces that the football community knew, as well as some that were not as well known. Some of them were high-profile assistants that were climbing the coaching ranks, and a handful of them would quickly gain the experience to move on to head coaching roles elsewhere. There was also a name somewhat familiar to people around Columbus — Zach Smith.
Smith, the Dublin, Ohio native, was known not just for being a coach from the area who had succeeded as an assistant to Urban Meyer (and later, Meyer assistants-turned-head coaches Doc Holliday and Steve Addazio), but also because of that kinship to the university — i.e. being the grandson of Earle Bruce.
After being named receivers coach in 2012, Smith would add the Recruiting Coordinator title in 2015. And by all measures and accounts, Smith has flourished in the additional role. Smith has been the driving force in securing the commitments of over 20 of the best high schoolers in the country, including the likes of Nick Bosa, Tate Martell, and Binjimen Victor. In fact, Smith was named the Big Ten “Recruiter of the Year” by Scout in 2016, and was named the best recruiter in the conference by both Scout and Rivals in 2014.
But at what point does the lack of production from Smith’s primary role start to overshadow everything else he brings to the coaching staff?
It has been no surprise to anyone that Smith’s Zone 6 group has, at times, failed to live up to the hype and expectations, especially when compared to the growth of other groups. There have been flashes of brilliance: Braxton Miller’s spin move against Virginia Tech, Noah Brown’s 4 touchdowns in Norman, and Evan Spencer’s entire Sugar Bowl performance all come to mind.
For every one of those moments, there are games where the Ohio State passing game struggled mightily. And while that is not entirely on the wideouts, there are definitely areas where this unit struggled and caused J.T. Barrett to struggle.
Remember the 2016 game against the Kevin Wilson-led Indiana Hoosiers, where Barrett completed only 9-of-23 passes for less than 100 yards. Or, as much as we all want to forget, the 19-of-33 passing game in the Fiesta Bowl. Again, this can not all be blamed on the wide receiver corps, but the unit failed to win their battles when needed. Lastly, the 15-of-32 game Barrett had against Michigan last season. This was a game our very own Brandon Zimmerman pointed out that when Michigan was throwing the ball, it was to a spot because their quarterback knew his receivers would be there. Barrett had to wait until his receivers were open, and then deliver late, because they couldn’t win the battles by themselves. Part of this can be accredited to (and quote this because I don’t compliment Michigan much) the Michigan cornerbacks were two of the best in the nation last season. But part of this blame also needs to be given to the wideouts for failing to win their individual battles.
Smith has had talent during his time coaching. His roster at Ohio State has included 6 wide receivers who were eventually drafted or signed into the NFL. Smith helped Braxton Miller make the transition to the position, and he coached arguably the best wideout to come from Ohio State during Meyer’s tenure in Michael Thomas. Smith has produced a number of All Big Ten wide receivers also, including Curtis Samuel last season. Yes, Smith is in charge of coaching the H Backs also.
Going back over Smith’s career, when officially tagged with the “Wide Receiver Coach” tag, the performance level has consistently been below par.
In 2010, at Marshall, the Thundering Herd wideouts tallied 152 catches for 1,824 yards and 16 touchdowns. For comparison sake, this would rank 2nd that season in individual yards, placing the entire group behind Hawaii’s Greg Salas at 1889 yards and just ahead of Justin Blackmon, who had 1,782 yards and 20 touchdowns for Oklahoma State that season.
The 2011 season brought Smith to Temple. The Owls were admittedly a rush-heavy offense in 2011, ranking No. 7 in the nation in rushing yards. Smith’s unit brought in 66 catches for 961 yards and eight touchdowns that season. While the offense was led by the ground attack, you have to wonder when looking back if the lack of passing production was by design or necessity? That season, Justin Blackmon again single-handedly out-performed Smith’s unit, hauling in 121 catches for 1522 yards and 18 touchdowns. And Blackmon fell to No. 4 nationally in yards that season. The Temple group would be 46th in the nation as an individual based on yardage.
Smith’s first season at Ohio State, 2012, would show improvement on the stat sheet, which is to be expected with the increase in talent. That season, Ohio State’s attack was led by Corey “Philly” Brown (60 catch/669 yard/3 TDs) and Devin Smith (30/618/6). In 2013, these two went 63/771/10 and 44/466/8, respectively.
While you look for proof of the receivers excelling leading to success on the scoreboard, you need not look any further than the 2014 National Championship-winning Buckeyes team. That team saw Devin Smith nearly get to 1,000 yards, ending the year with 931 on 33 catches and going for 12 touchdowns. Smith was joined by Michael Thomas, who caught 54 balls for 799 yards and nine scores.
The following season’s disappointment is well known among Buckeye faithful, for as disappointing as a fourth-place AP Poll final ranking can be for a team. The lackluster overall performance from Zone 6 was also noticeable. Outside of Michael Thomas’ 56 catches for 781 yards and nine touchdowns, there was not a single Ohio State wide receiver with more than 477 yards receiving. In fact, there were only 10 other touchdown receptions from the entire roster that season.
That brings the 2016 season into focus. Last year, Ohio State finally found their long-sought “Percy Harvin H-Back” player in Curtis Samuel. The Brooklyn native’s season has been well documented, due to his 74 receptions, 865 yards, and seven touchdowns being added to the 771 yards rushing and eight touchdowns on the ground. However, with Michael Thomas leaving early for the NFL, it was known the wide receivers would struggle, and the unit lived up (or down) to this expectation. The second-best statisticial performance came from Noah Brown, who hauled in 32 catches for 402 and seven scores. Take out his Oklahoma game and Brown only has 27 catches, 330 yards, and three touchdowns. That’s not exactly the kind of season that will help a young offense move the ball when needed.
So where does 2017 land for Smith? The pressure on the talented coach has to be building. Urban Meyer has shown that he will turn over his coaching roster when needed and restock the shelves with some of the best in the business. This year’s coaching staff includes multiple former head coaches and a new quarterback coach with college and NFL experience.
There is a reason it feels like Wide Receivers Coach is the one staff position that has not been “upgraded” under Meyer, and that is because Smith is the last position coach remaining from Meyer’s original staff in 2012. (Kerry Coombs came to OSU in the spring of 2012, replacing Bill Sheridan, who left abruptly for the NFL.)
This season, the expectations should be much higher for the Buckeye receivers. Even with Samuel and Brown gone, Ohio State is returning a talented and now-experienced group, with nearly a dozen players having recorded at least one reception in 2016. This unit also includes multiple 4-star recruits who have shown promise during spring games and fall camps. There also is the guy who will be throwing them the ball in J.T. Barrett, whom Kevin Wilson once called “the best quarterback in college football.”
And having Kevin Wilson running the offense certainly will not hurt.
Will one of the contenders for the starting H-Back job be able to take control of the position? While K.J. Hill and Paris Campbell look to be the front runners this season, it will be up to someone to come into fall camp and win that position. Who will replace the limited production from the outside receiver position? Can Binjimen Victor, Terry McLaurin, or someone else step up and be the next great Ohio State wideout? Is this the year Austin Mack lives up to the 2016 Spring camp output and translates that to success during the regular season? Does Demario McCall move over from running back? Basically, how does Smith help this group take their talent and recruiting hype to the next level and produce tangible results on the field?
Zach Smith is a fighter and will continue to work his butt off to improve his squad. I have no doubt they will step up and outshine last season’s production (2,310 yards receiving).
But it will be up to the men in Zone 6 to take an even bigger step forward and at least match the production from the 2014 season (2,955 yards receiving).
If they don’t, Urban Meyer might just be looking for a new receivers coach in 2018.