Aside from quarterback Cardale Jones or running back Ezekiel Elliott — the stars of Ohio State’s recent championship run — you would be hard-pressed to find a Buckeye who benefited more from exposure than receiver Devin Smith.
With every victory, particularly late in the season, Smith forced NFL people and draft analysts to take note of his particular set of skills, including one that happens to be extremely valuable today’s pass-happy NFL — his rare ability to track the deep ball.
“I’ve done it since high school, so I kind of have that knack,” Smith said last month at the Senior Bowl. “All throughout my junior year, people knew I could do it. But this year I did a lot more, and people really realized how good I was — especially when I started passing some of the guys on the touchdown list at Ohio State.
Smith, who measured in at 6 feet 3/8 inches and 190 pounds, didn’t blow anyone away his meager catch total of 33 in 15 games this season. But he racked up 30 receiving touchdowns in his career, good for second on the school’s all-time list, ahead of the likes of NFL stars Cris Carter, Joey Galloway and Terry Glenn.
And this year, certainly, was Smith’s best season. Although he averaged only two catches a game, he still finished just shy of 1,000 yards receiving (931) and scored 12 touchdowns, largely because of a unique combination of speed and hand-eye coordination that allows him to run under deep balls with the best of them.
“I think his ability to do that is definitely uncanny, and his tape throughout the year showed a lot better than he did at the Senior Bowl because he was getting more of those targets during the season,” said OptimumScouting.com draft analyst Alex Brown. “That’s something that comes natural and is tough to develop.”
It’s also a particular skill that is coveted in Chiefs coach Andy Reid’s West Coast offense. So it’s little wonder that, according to Smith, he was interviewed by the Chiefs during Senior Bowl week.
Surely the Chiefs’ scouting staff, like the rest of the NFL, noticed Smith’s gaudy per-catch average (28.2) this year, not to mention his performance during the Buckeyes’ last four games.
In those games, he caught eight passes for 321 yards — a stunning 40-yard average — and four touchdowns, with his four catches for 137 yards and three touchdowns against Wisconsin in the Big 10 championship game serving as the high-water mark.
As you might imagine, Smith nodded and smiled when asked his favorite route to run. He likes the post route. He likes the corner route, too. But nothing beats old reliable.
“The go route, the nine route,” Smith said. “In college, I was working on some of the techniques of running that route, and it’s not as simple as a lot of people think it is, especially with tracking the ball, since you never really know how the quarterback is going to throw it.
“It’s just pure concentration and hand-eye coordination and being able to focus in tough situations that has helped me get so good at that. I high jump as well, which takes a lot of focus. You’ve got to make sure everything is consistent. So in practice, when I’m working on the deep routes, I try to keep everything the same and focus on the little details.”
Smith said he relishes being able to set up defensive backs on deep routes.
“Especially when they play off (coverage),” Smith said. “When they play off, I really have an advantage on them because I can make it look like I’m running something different and run the go. That’s where I’ve grown as a player, setting DBs up. … I’ve done that a few times this year, with the Wisconsin game being one of them. I acted like I was running the post and ran the go and was open.”
Plays like that one, which resulted in a 42-yard touchdown, are why he’s seen his name start sneaking into the bottom of the first round in some mock drafts.
But to some, like Brown, that might be a little high for a player who has yet to develop into a complete receiver and didn’t exactly stand out during Senior Bowl practices.
“At the Senior Bowl he was dropping easy targets, and I don’t think he can get off press yet,” Brown said. “He doesn’t really have a well-rounded game yet, and there’s only a certain set of routes you want to run with him.
“I think he’s a big-time athlete that’s natural at tracking and catching the ball. He just needs to hammer down his skill set, and some of that has to do with how they used him at OSU because they do have a simplified scheme. He can do everything you need him to do, but he will take time to be the No. 1 guy.”
Smith, to his credit, understands he needs to improve his technique when it comes to beating press coverage.
“That was a struggle I had early in my career,” Smith said. “I just worked and worked and worked and really tried to find different things to work to get open.”
Smith, however, didn’t have to work that hard to do so during his star turn late in the season, especially since the Buckeyes kept dialing up the bread-and-butter deep routes that allowed him to showcase the talent that likely will lead to a significant payday in three short months.
“I can run every route on the true — slant, corner, comebacks, curls,” Smith said. “I think with the offense I was in and the way we wanted to do things, they really wanted to use me deep because they knew I could do it.”