Older, wiser Thomas hopes to be playmaker for Ohio State football team

Ohio State receiver Michael Thomas, seen here last season, hopes to improve on a 2012 season that saw him catch three balls for 22 yards.
Ohio State receiver Michael Thomas, seen here last season, hopes to improve on a 2012 season that saw him catch three balls for 22 yards.

COLUMBUS — To paraphrase the title of his famous uncle’s autobiography, Michael Thomas expected Ohio State to just give him the ball last season.

He had the pedigree and the promise — his team-high 12 catches in the Buckeyes’ spring game seeming to foreshadow a prolific freshman season on a team that lacked a proven receiver.

Yet just as Thomas bolted into mind, he was out of sight just as quickly. His 2012 total: three catches for 22 yards.

"I don't think the [spring game] was a curse," receivers coach Zach Smith said. "But it was motivating because of the year he had and the expectations he had after the game. I'm glad it happened now.

"Last year, he might have been a little inflated. But he's not now."

When Ohio State plays its annual Scarlet and Gray game Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, tens of thousands of scrutinizing fans will make their first judgments of the 2013 Buckeyes.

Thomas, the nephew of former NFL star Keyshawn Johnson, is an example of why it’s sometimes best to wait.

A year after his hyped first public close-up, Thomas said last week why he wasn’t ready last season — and why he believes he is now. This spring, Thomas is no longer a "little clueless," as Smith pegged him last year. A player who receives daily pointers from Johnson, feels in lockstep with star quarterback Braxton Miller — the two close friends even traveled to Thomas’ native California for private training sessions in December — and has learned to read defenses could be now what so many expected he would be last season: a breakout contributor.

By all accounts, the 6-foot-2, 199-pound sophomore is enjoying a strong spring. He caught deep balls in coverage during passing drills on Tuesday and Thursday, then stirred an estimated 2,500 students at Saturday’s open practice with a one-handed touchdown grab despite pass interference from freshman cornerback Eli Apple.

Thomas will have to keep standing out. The receivers have outgrown their starring role in the Urban Meyer-styled "clown show" from last spring. Senior Corey Brown caught 60 passes for 669 yards last year, junior Devin Smith emerged as a clutch deep option, and fifth-year senior Jordan Hall is moving from tailback to H-Back.

Still, the Buckeyes’ passing offense, though improved from a rock-bottom 2011, ranked 101st nationally. Help remains wanted, and Thomas could offer it at split end.

"When you come in as a freshman, I was just trying to make plays," Thomas said. "You just want to catch the ball. I wasn't really following the [offensive] concept. It's starting to slow down now."

Unlike in high school at Woodland Hills Taft outside Los Angeles, where he caught 86 passes for a state-leading 1,656 yards and 21 touchdowns and developed into a four-star prospect, Thomas relies on more than his size, speed, and instincts. He knows, for instance, how to read his triangle — the safety, the cornerback, and the near linebacker — and continues to absorb tips from Johnson, a fellow Los Angeles native with whom Thomas said he talks daily.

The best advice from Johnson, who played 11 seasons in the NFL and now analyzes for a living on ESPN?

"Make everything look like I'm running the ‘Go,’ " Thomas said. "If I stay low and act like I'm running the ‘Go,’ no defensive back wants to get beat deep, and it opens up everything underneath."

Thomas also continues to bond with the player responsible for giving him the ball. When Miller spent a week in San Diego training with quarterback guru George Whitfield, he threw to Thomas and stayed at his family’s house in Woodland Hills. Thomas calls Miller, a junior, "like my brother away from home."

Naturally, Thomas was among the first Miller alerted when he unveiled a bleached-blond mohawk this week. Think the look previously cornered by former LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, better known as the Honey Badger.

"Soon as he got it," Thomas said, "he wanted to know my opinion."

"It’s great," he told Miller.

"It's just something new," Thomas said. "Why not?"

Whether said with bitten tongue or not, the idea is for the connection to translate into a new battery this fall.

WHACK A BULB: The Buckeyes traveled to the technological frontier in search of their latest edge.

The Ohio State football program recently purchased a light-sensor machine it hopes will speed up players’ reaction time.

The Dynavision D2, which generally costs about $15,000, features bulbs that light up one after another across an oversized square board. Players have a minute to hit as many as possible.

Other clients include a handful of college baseball and football programs, the Steelers, NASCAR drivers, and the U.S. Air Force.

"It’s training the eye muscles just like you would be training leg muscles or arm muscles," strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti said.

Players said they are seeing results on the field.

Cornerback Doran Grant, whose first score was in the 40s, now has a team-high mark of 108. Receiver Chris Fields improved from 86 to 107.

"I was actually thinking about getting it for my house, but it’s probably a little expensive," Fields said, laughing. "I’ve noticed a difference, and I’ve [only] used it four or five times."

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.