The time has come for Ohio State’s veteran wide receivers, redshirt juniors Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon, to become playmakers.
But the same can be said for sophomores Binjimen Victor and Austin Mack.
In fact, Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith refuses to envision a scenario where the unit can be dominant without Victor and Mack contributing in a significant way.
“Has to happen,” Smith said. “There’s no scenario where it’s not going to happen. They have to be a major part of this offense.”
There’s good reason for Smith’s comments.
The Buckeyes had their two starting receivers — Noah Brown and McLaurin — catch 43 of redshirt senior quarterback J.T. Barrett’s 233 completed passes last season (18.5 percent), compared to 2015’s 45 percent and 2014’s 33.5 percent of total receptions from its starters.
The starting duo combined to have fewer receptions than H-back Curtis Samuel, who finished the year with 74 catches. Campbell, McLaurin and then-redshirt freshman K.J. Hill, along with former Buckeyes Dontre Wilson and Brown, continually struggled to create separation from defenses, which in turn created an often-dysfunctional offense.
It’s simple. Ohio State’s starting receivers can’t have another year in 2017 like they had last season. But in case they do, that’s where Victor’s and Mack’s growths come into play.
“(Austin and I) looked at the film last year and we was like, ‘Man, we look so much better this year compared to last year,’” Victor said. “It’s a big difference and, you know, coming out this year, it’s definitely going to be a change for us.”
Mack, at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, enrolled in Spring 2016 and was the first member of the 2016 class to have his black stripe removed, signifying he officially became part of the team. But Mack said he knew he wasn’t ready and could see it on film that he wasn’t living up to expectation. Once camp is over, his expectation for himself is to be a starter and a receiver who can be a vertical threat.
Time will tell if Mack can be a starter, but his position coach said he’s starting to see the potential he saw in Mack when recruiting him.
“Last year, (Mack) was inconsistent, and so you had good days and bad days,” Smith said. “And we had to get consistency out of him and right now he is very consistent.And he’s just got to keep it up and keep going.”
At 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, Victor’s main objective his freshman season was to gain weight. To play in the Big Ten, a receiver has to have a type of physicality that Victor’s physique didn’t allow. Yet, the physical frame was there.
He played in just five games, but saw more and more playing time toward the end of the season. He caught his first career touchdown against Maryland in Ohio State’s 10th game and was a primary target at times against Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl.
But long before Victor found the end zone, he was simply trying to differentiate North from South.
“Around this time (last year), fall camp, it was very discouraging,” Victor said. “I was very down on myself, I didn’t know what to do. I just came out hoping to get through practice. Now it’s just a different mentality for me.”
Smith said Victor has the playmaking element the position needs and the second-year from Pompano Beach, Florida, is learning to play physically and fighting through contact — something that was missing last season.
Campbell, the likely successor to Samuel at H-back, probably won’t replicate Samuel’s production, but he should see equal targets with the starting wideouts in the new offensive direction of co-offensive coordinators Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day.
The coaching staff believes a strong receiving corps can put the offense back in the national conversation as one of the country’s best. The argument can also be made that Ohio State has more experience and leadership from the quarterback position in Barrett than any other school in the NCAA.
But the plays still have to be made by receivers, and the opportunities should be there for the taking for Victor and Mack.
“We have a couple old guys like Parris, Johnnie and Terry, you know, me and Austin, we’re sophomores,” Victor said. “That means we definitely got to step up and try to make plays for them, especially for our team to help win games.”