By Mitch Stacy
AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS — When Ohio State receivers Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller departed for the NFL, they took with them 80 percent of the team’s passing-game production from last season.
That’s a bunch of pressure for the receivers vying for playing time this season. They are loaded with talent and potential, definitely, but have yet to make an impact in Columbus.
The two likely starters at wide receiver, Noah Brown and Corey Smith, both went down with broken legs last year but are healed and running at full speed. The rest of the crop is raw. The H-backs, Curtis Samuel and Dontre Wilson, are more experienced, but Samuel may switch back and forth between receiver and tailback.
Brown had figured in Ohio State’s plans at receiver last year before his injury in the preseason. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound New Jersey product played in 13 games as a freshman during the 2014 season but had only one reception.
“Noah Brown was going to be a starter when he had that tough injury a week before our first game (last year), and he’ll be a starter this year,” coach Urban Meyer said.
“If the (defender) is on top of Noah, I can just put it anywhere around Noah and he’s going to get it,” quarterback J.T. Barrett said. “I feel like Noah’s got my back, when the ball’s in the air it’s his. The young guys, they still have to develop that.”
Smith, a graduate student in his fourth year of eligibility, saw considerable playing time in the ‘14 championship season and then broke his leg in the fifth game last year. He has 25 catches for 317 yards in the two seasons. Sophomores Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin are pushing Smith, and Johnnie Dixon, quarterback-turned-receiver Torrance Gibson and true freshman Austin Mack also are in the mix.
“We’ve got the potential to probably be the best wide receivers that’s ever come through Ohio State,” Brown said. “We have a lot of speed and a lot of guys who can do different things, but experience is a challenge for us.”
Junior Marcus Baugh inherits the tight end job after the departure of Nick Vannett.
The Buckeyes’ offensive workhorse may turn out to be Samuel, who is the top returning receiver with 289 yards and two touchdowns in 2015. The versatile junior backed up Ezekiel Elliott at running back in 2014 and was moved to H-back — a hybrid running back/receiver in Meyer’s system — last season to get him on the field more. He’s got 33 catches for 384 yards and two touchdowns in his career, to go along with 465 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 75 carries. With the departure of Elliott, he’ll be asked to augment the running game as well as catch passes.
“I think he’s our No. 1 playmaker on offense right now,” Meyer said Monday. “I just love his skill set.”
Without Elliott to carry the offensive load this year, Meyer acknowledged a sense of urgency to improve the passing game, which ranked 100th in the country last year.
“That was a little bit of a crutch last year,” Meyer said. “You had the best tailback in the country and when in doubt, hand it to Zeke. We want to be much more balanced.”
STARTING LINEUP TAKES SHAPE
With three-quarters of preseason practices done, Meyer said he’s starting to name some starters, which involves calling the players’ parents to let them know. He said defensive end Sam Hubbard has been named a first-time starter, and tailback Mike Weber and linebackers Chris Worley and Dante Booker are close. Worley and Booker will play alongside Raekwon McMillan, the returning starter at middle linebacker.
“This is that week where we start making those phone calls and (say) ‘Hey mom and dad, get ready to make some trips because your son is starting at Ohio State,’” Meyer said.
EASING BOSA IN
Freshman defensive end Nick Bosa is on Meyer’s “pitch count” while recovering from the knee injury suffered in his senior year of high school. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound touted recruit, the younger brother of Buckeyes star defensive end Joey Bosa, should be healthy enough to play when the season starts.
“We’ll be very smart with how hard we throw him in the mix, but he’ll obviously be in that rotation,” Meyer said.
Bosa will wear the same 97 uniform number as his brother did at Ohio State.
“I’ve definitely had the expectations for a while, having Joey come here and me follow him, and wear the same number with the same name on the back,” the younger Bosa said. “But I’m not really focused on the hype. I’m just confident in my abilities. It’ll show.”