The Buckeye player who may have had the single greatest impact on Austin Mack’s career never actually played with the junior receiver.
Michael Thomas’ final game in scarlet and gray came on New Year’s Day 2016, when he racked up seven catches for 72 yards and a touchdown in a Fiesta Bowl shellacking of Notre Dame.
He declared that he was turning pro on January 5. Six days later, Mack officially enrolled as an OSU student.
But despite the fact that Thomas was already officially out the door, there was no question that his presence was still felt when Mack walked in.
“That’s been Austin’s deal since the minute he signed here,” said OSU wide receivers coach Zach Smith. “He would come in and say ‘whatever Mike Thomas did, tell me, I want to do it.'”
It’s not hard to figure out why an incoming freshman would want to emulate Thomas. The current New Orleans Saints star struggled to get on the field during his first two seasons in Columbus, but turned into a dynamic standout on the 2014 and 2015 teams that combined for a 26-2 record and won a national title.
His toe-tapping catch of an Evan Spencer pass in the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama might be the most significant and spectacular highlight from any Buckeye receiver in school history.
But Smith said that Mack’s interest in following the former Buckeye great went way beyond the football field.
“Whatever it was, if he ate chicken wings on Wednesdays, I’m doing that,” said Smith. “He was obsessed with it, and he’s been obsessed with reaching that level of success.”
Two years into his Buckeye career, Mack has already had more success than Thomas had at the midpoint of his time. It may be a largely-forgotten bit of trivia now, but Thomas recorded just three catches for 22 yards as a true freshman in 2012, then failed to get on the field at all in 2013 and took a redshirt.
By comparison, Mack has a total of 22 catches for 275 yards and a pair of touchdowns in his first two years, plus one of the signature plays of the 2017 season.
With the Buckeyes trailing Michigan in the third quarter and facing a 3rd-and-13, Mack went up to snag a 27-yard pass from backup quarterback Dwayne Haskins, then managed to hang on to the ball following a big hit. Three plays later, the Bucks took a 21-20 lead that they would never relinquish.
Smith said there’s not much question whether Mack or his role model had the better first two seasons.
“To compare the two at this point in their career, Austin’s probably ahead of him,” said Smith, before adding a fairly significant asterisk. “Now, Mike made a huge jump that next year.”
Thomas exploded for 799 and 788 yards in 2014 and 2015, scoring a total of 18 touchdowns.
Mack has a long way to go to reach those numbers, but there’s no question that the goal of finishing his career with that same kind of star turn is within reach.
Mack said that another pair of legendary former Buckeyes has been back at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, helping him and the rest of the receiving corps to get there.
“Having Joey Galloway and Santonio Holmes coming back to help us, giving us information. Just helping us to reach that next step,” said Mack. “There’s always room for improvement.”
Smith sees signs that after years of imitating his habits off the field, Mack may be on the verge of truly following in Thomas’ footsteps on it as well. That means turning into a true impact player.
“He had a really good year for a true sophomore. Now it’s time to have a big time junior year,” said Smith. “I expect him to be one of the best in the country. That’s what he has to be.”