The Buckeyes still have Braxton Miller under center, they still have Urban Meyer called the shots, but they enter Week 1 without their top two running backs in Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith.
Both backs will be suspended for the season opener against Buffalo on Saturday, with Hyde’s suspension going at least through Week 3.
Without both weapons in the backfield, the success of the passing attack suddenly becomes much more important. Even if Miller rushes for 1,000 yards again this season, he’ll need to put together some quality passing plays to set up those big runs.
So, who will Miller be targeting downfield to keep opposing defenses on their heels?
Junior Devin Smith and senior Corey (Philly) Brown will both play key roles in the Buckeyes’ passing attack in 2013. The two receivers combined for 90 catches, good for 1287 yards (59.1% of the team’s total receiving yards). No other receiver caught more than 16 passes, with now-graduated tight end Jake Stoneburner (currently with the Packers) being the only other player with more than one touchdown catch.
When we look at the numbers, it’s clear that both Smith and Brown will need to build on their 2012 campaigns if the Buckeyes are going to run an effective offense in the first few weeks of the season. A breakout star could emerge from the lower ranks of the depth chart, and Meyer and company would love for sophomore Michael Thomas or junior Corey Smith to become a contributing piece in this offense, but until that happens, the Buckeyes don’t have immediate quality depth beyond their two playmakers.
Smith’s been known to be on the tail end of miracle plays in recent years, including his last-minute Hail Mary snag in his freshman season and this one-handed grab against Miami, Ohio, last year.
He led the team in touchdown catches (6) last season, and was certainly Braxton Miller’s favorite deep threat, averaging 20.6 yards per catch. With Stoneburner, who averaged 16.8 yards per catch, now trying to create an NFL career, Smith must take his game to the next level early on in 2013.
Brown’s numbers aren’t quite as flashy, as he caught just three touchdowns last season, but he did lead the team in total receiving yards (669). Brown is ultimately in line to be the team’s starting slot receiver in 2013, and will look to chase seven or eight hundred receiving yards in his final season as a Buckeye. Establishing himself as another passing threat will be crucial for drawing double coverage off Smith.
Perhaps the Buckeyes’ best bet at finding help in the passing game will be by utilizing the flex position, which will presumably be occupied by redshirt senior Jordan Hall for at least Week 1. To get an idea of what the position is, think of it as a running back/wide receiver combo spot, such as De’Anthony Thomas on Oregon or the role Percy Harvin played under Meyer at Florida and continues to play in the NFL.
Having that dual-threat player in the backfield could really create havoc for defenses simply because they’re not sure whether they’ll see a run or a pass when Hall (or whoever fills the flex spot) lines up next to Miller. And for now, it’ll have to do.
It’s certainly a killer on both sides of the ball to start the season off with so many suspensions, but all things being equal, at least the opening opponent is less-than-intimidating at best. Buffalo will give the Buckeyes a great chance to get in-sync in the passing game, and hopefully Hall will be a pleasant surprise in the backfield.
Tonight, we continue and complete our Position Breakdown series, as I take a look at the quarterbacks.
For more in our Positional Breakdown Series: