COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The spring season's star was back on a familiar stage, again stealing the show.
A few thousand fans crowded into Ohio State’s indoor practice facility on Saturday, and, as he’s done three camps running, Michael Thomas gave them all something to remember and rave about.
The redshirt sophomore stuck out one hand in the corner of the end zone, plucked a pass out of the air as if the football and his glove were made of velcro and started a team-wide celebration with yet another entry on his spring highlight reel.
For now, Thomas has almost nothing of note on his résumé after the month of April in his career with the Buckeyes, failing twice in a row to build on head-turning workouts and jaw-dropping glimpses of his athleticism at wide receiver. But in the midst of a third productive camp and coming off a surprising redshirt season, though, Thomas might finally be ready to carry over some of his springtime success into the fall.
“I just took last season like a developmental year,” Thomas said. “That motivates me more, motivates me every day.
“We’ve been waiting for spring to come around since we knew we were probably going to redshirt. Now it’s here and we’re going hard and competing every day.”
Thomas has had a knack for winning those battles in the spring, and it has only made his lack of production when it really counts all the more puzzling.
As an early enrollee in 2012, Thomas dominated the spring game with a team-high 12 catches, a number that was even more notable with the Buckeyes coming off a season in which no player made more than 14 receptions.
Last spring, Thomas seemed to always have the edge on the practice field during open workouts, using his 6-foot-3, 203-pound frame to overpower defensive backs on intermediate routes or flashing his speed and ball skills to make plays deep down the field.
But his first season in 2012 ended with just three receptions. Last fall, a disappointing training camp in August prompted the coaching staff to bench him for the opener, a decision that ultimately sent him down the path to a season on the sideline.
“He didn’t have a great fall camp,” wide receivers coach Zach Smith said. “So, I didn’t play him in the first game, mainly because I wanted him to realize that we’re not going to go a whole season with him preparing the way he prepared, performing the way he performed in practice. That’s just not what we expect here. After that game, kept going, he kept growing, but we didn’t want to waste a year on Mike just to catch 12 balls or 15.
“We weren’t going to put him in the game unless we had to, so we saved a year, but he got a year of experience preparing to play.”
That extra year might come in handy down the road for the Buckeyes when or if Thomas does end up tapping into his outsized potential, and he certainly had plenty of chances to build himself into a dangerous target while working against future NFL cornerback Bradley Roby on the practice field last season.
Ohio State has been able to put up prolific, historic offensive statistics in the past two seasons while leaning heavily on its rushing attack and not getting quite as much balance from the passing game as the coaching staff would like, an issue Urban Meyer has made well known he’d like to fix heading into his third season with the program. A lack of depth at receiver isn’t solely to blame for that, much like a rough training camp that produced a redshirt for Thomas wasn’t the only factor that limited some of the options and production on the perimeter.
But Thomas has the ability to help solve both problems at the same time. He’ll just have to move his next encore performance up to the fall.
“I just had to reach out a little bit, extra effort, one-handed catch, it hit my glove and stuck to it,” Thomas said after adding another spring touchdown catch to his collection. “There are still a lot of things I have to work on, but we’re getting better every day.”
Small crowds have had a chance to see that improvement in the spring. But the Buckeyes are still waiting to see him show it off to a packed stadium when it truly matters.