Blue Smith was not part of the most prolific passing season in Ohio State football history, but he was still all smiles after the Buckeyes beat Washington in the Rose Bowl.
And why not?
The freshman receiver from Wayne could feel good about going through the ups and downs many highly regarded prospects do when they get to Columbus and coming out better for it on the other side.
“I had a slow start,” Smith said in the locker room Jan. 1 “I really struggled during the summer. I really wasn’t conditioned, and then going into (preseason) camp, I really didn’t know my plays and I was just messing up a lot.”
Training camp was tough for the 6-foot-4, 207-pound freshman, but he credited receivers coach Brian Hartline with helping him push through it.
“I really dug down and started grinding more, getting into my playbook more, spending more time with Coach Hartline, so I think that towards the beginning of the season I got going,” Smith said. “That’s probably when it clicked.”
His welcome to college football moment came in the second half of the year.
“Probably the Nebraska game,” he said. “I was on kickoff return and I pancaked a guy, and I was like, ‘Damn! That felt good!’ I wanna do that every time. And that was my first time starting on anything, and I was locked in. Right after that every day I came in with that same mentality.”
Regardless of how ready to play Smith might (or might not) have been, the path to playing time in 2018 was never promising.
Such is life when a roster contains talented seniors Parris Campbell, Johnnie Dixon and Terry McLaurin along with productive junior K.J. Hill.
After earning first-team All-Ohio honors on the football field and averaging double-figures in scoring for the Warriors basketball team, Smith found himself one of 12 four-star receivers on the Ohio State roster.
Fortunately, he is also one of two Wayne graduates on the team, and Robert Landers knew just what to say when Smith was down in the dumps.
“When I first got here, I wanted to go home and I was upset all the time — because you’re The Man in high school, and then you come up here and you’ve gotta start over again, so it was a big adjustment for me,” Smith said. “He just sat me down and said everybody goes through the same stuff you’re going through. You’ve just got to get through it. Freshman year is always the hardest year.”
That message from Landers, who redshirted in 2015 but has been a regular in the rotation the past three seasons, helped Smith make it through the dog days of summer to get onto an upward trajectory as the Buckeyes got into the season.
"I don’t care who you are: You have to go through the development of the freshman phase,” Landers said. “And he struggled a little bit like every freshman does, but once he figured it out, it’s to the point that Blue down the road — potentially even next year — will have an outstanding impact and will contribute on an enormous level for this team.”
Smith caught the eye of Ohio State’s record-setting quarterback, too.
“Blue’s a big physical receiver, strong hands,” said Dwayne Haskins, who has since declared for the NFL draft, before the Rose Bowl. “Might not be the fastest, but he can run good routes. The biggest thing with him being a freshman is just being mentally locked in on the plays and knowing what you’re doing on every play. It’s hard because you don’t really know everything yet, but he’s finding his way.”
Breaking into the starting lineup will still be no easy task in 2019.
Though Campbell, Dixon and McLaurin are out of eligibility, Hill has announced he will return for one more season in Scarlet and Gray.
That gives first-year head coach Ryan Day three seniors — Hill, Binjimin Victor and Austin Mack, a starter before suffering a foot injury in November — to help break in a new starting quarterback.
And that’s not all.
Since it’s Ohio State, there are multiple highly-regarded recruits waiting in the wings.
A group of five four-star underclassmen includes Smith but not Chris Olave, a three-star from California who broke into the lineup last fall as a freshman and had a breakout game against Michigan when he caught two touchdown passes and blocked a punt.
That being the case, Smith will need all the lessons he picked up in his first year on campus in order to excel in the future.
He probably won’t need a reminder, but Landers is still around just in case.
“He’s a great kid,” Landers said. “Love being around him. I love him to death. He’s goofy. I call him a goober. He’s really silly. I love him to death. He’s like a little brother.”
On the last day of his freshman season, Smith sounded ready to take on all challenges in 2019.
“I was very, very raw when I got here from high school, so it was just about fine-tuning everything,” he said, including his speed and his ability to run pass routes. “Everything had to be refined, so it was a really big adjustment.
“Next year I’m going to hopefully keep progressing and just keep getting better. I’m in the right spot right now so hopefully I can just keep going.”