Ohio State's senior wide receivers leading team as a group

Ohio State wide receivers (from left) Terry McLaurin, Austin Mack, Johnnie Dixon and Parris Campbell are a rarity, passing on the NFL to return for another season together. Adam Rittenberg/ESPN

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- At Ohio State, Urban Meyer pitches recruits on condensed careers: play as a true freshman, become a star and, after your junior year, move on to the NFL. Few players get to grow old in Meyer's program.

Terry McLaurin, Parris Campbell and Johnnie Dixon are the rarest of Buckeyes. All three passed on the NFL to spend another season catching passes at Ohio State. They're back to lead a receiving corps that returns all seven letter-winners from 2017. It's a group that lacks an obvious superstar but, because of its talent, experience and leadership, has become the nerve center of the 2018 Buckeyes.

The roster includes only eight fifth-year players: three play offensive line, which isn't uncommon. But the three seasoned wide receivers?

"I've never seen it," receivers coach Zach Smith said.

As the wideouts go, McLaurin said, so does the team. And know this about them: They go everywhere together. They even insist on doing media interviews together. After a practice in early April, Ohio State's not-so-grumpy old men -- McLaurin, Dixon and Campbell -- gathered next to Ohio State's indoor practice field with junior receiver Austin Mack. The discussion quickly turned to some of the old-man activities they enjoy.

Like bowling.

"I'm the best bowler," Dixon proclaimed, before turning to Mack. "Saturday, what did I beat you by?

"It wasn't like I was bowling bad, either," Mack countered. "You dropped like a 160 on me. I had like a 139, 140."

On free weekend afternoons, the group usually heads to HPL Bowling Center a few miles northeast of campus. They play for two hours, sometimes individually, sometimes in teams. No one has bowled a 200, although Dixon and McLaurin have come close. Dixon is considered the best bowler, although Smith points out that he has never beaten his position coach.

"We've turned into a old-head group, we call it," Dixon said.

Sometimes, they'll bring along a non-receiver. Dwayne Haskins, the likely starter at quarterback who lives with Mack, apparently throws a football a lot better than he rolls a bowling ball.

When not bowling, the receivers usually hang out at one of their houses.

"It's a blessing, but then again, it's also a workload, just being old and being in this program," Campbell said. "I look at all of these guys like my brothers, and they look at me the same way."

Wide receiver isn't usually the position associated with ironclad bonds, unity and leadership. That distinction usually goes to the offensive or defensive line. Receivers are seen in a different light. "Prima donnas and divas and selfish players," Mack said as the others nodded and smiled.

"The position is a very selfish position," Smith said. "It's all about touches, it's all about catches and being in the spotlight, catching touchdowns. There are some divas and some less divas. If it's a stereotype, it's an accurate one."

It just doesn't seem to apply to Ohio State's group this year.

Perhaps one reason is that the Buckeyes lack a clear-cut star. Last season, K.J. Hill led Ohio State in receptions (56), while Campbell led in yards (584) and Dixon led in both touchdowns (eight) and yards per reception (23.4). Five returning wideouts recorded at least five receptions of 20 yards or longer last season. Six returning WRs had at least 18 catches and multiple touchdown grabs.

"We all want to make that play," Mack said. "But if I see Johnnie or K.J. making a play, it's not like, 'Dang, I should have got that.' It's more you're happy for that guy because you know they're putting in the same work as you and getting that reward."

The rewards have come after shared adversity. Dixon, ESPN's No. 5 wide receiver and No. 34 overall player in the 2014 recruiting class, has struggled with knee injuries throughout his career. Campbell and McLaurin didn't catch a pass until their third year in the program, making their mark outside the spotlight. They became developmental players in a program known for fast-tracking.

Shortly after Campbell and McLaurin arrived on campus, Mickey Marotti, who oversees Ohio State's strength and conditioning program, pulled Smith aside. These two kids, he said, are going to change the culture in your room like you've never seen.

"And they did," Smith said. "Terry and Parris were integral on special teams. They were the weight-room leaders. They came up in the program."

Added Meyer: "The whole thing changed with those two. They're just hard workers and great guys. The respect they have amongst their teammates is over the top."

The long journey motivated McLaurin, Campbell and Dixon to complete it this fall. On Jan. 11, Campbell and Dixon tweeted hours apart that they would return as fifth-year seniors. Five days later, McLaurin confirmed he, too, would be back.

Although the friends corresponded a bit during decision time, they largely left each other alone, respecting each choice as personal.

"I was on the fence," McLaurin said, "but at the end of the day, I felt like this was what's best for not only me but us as a group. We have unfinished business. And you don't see a lot of groups return everybody. I just felt like I would gain more from coming back, getting another chance to be a leader and a captain, and just enjoy being around my teammates.

"That's the thing I'm going to miss the most when my time here is up."

When the receivers reconvened in January and officially turned the page toward the 2018 season, Smith told them to look around. Quarterback J.T. Barrett, a four-year starter and the school's first three-time captain, was gone. So were other longtime leaders like defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis and linebacker Chris Worley.

"I told them, it's high-stakes poker now," Smith said. "This year, you are J.T., you are Tyquan. If you have a day off, the whole team has a day off."

Challenge accepted. Of the nine captains Ohio State had in 2017, only Campbell and McLaurin are back, and they should retain their titles. Smith wouldn't be shocked if Dixon and Hill end up as captains, too. Ohio State grades players' offseason performance by slotting them into tiers, with gold being elite. Smith said of the eight players currently in the gold tier, five are wide receivers. The wideouts are recognizing that they're not only allies for the Buckeyes' new quarterback, but models for the rest of the team.

It showed during spring practice.

"The receivers kind of set the tone," Dixon said. "When we're out there flying around, singing and dancing and making plays, then everybody else feels that. Even the defensive players feel that. We're making plays on the DBs, and that makes them want to up their game."

Smith thinks there's star potential in his group, but both he and the players are realistic. In addition to all the returning production at receiver, Ohio State brings back two running backs, J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, who recorded double-digit receptions last season. H-back Demario McCall, ESPN's No. 38 overall player in the 2016 class, should see an enhanced role after two quiet seasons.

The situation reminds Smith a bit of 2015. Leading receiver Michael Thomas produced strong numbers -- 56 receptions, 781 yards, nine touchdowns -- but wasn't considered for national honors, as he played in an offense featuring running back Ezekiel Elliott and other talents. A second-round pick of the New Orleans Saints, Thomas has 196 receptions in two NFL seasons and made his first Pro Bowl in 2017.

"They saw Mike and how good he was and didn't get the accolades," Smith said, "and now they're watching him on Sundays get what he deserves. They know it'll come. You'll become what you should become."

What Ohio State's receivers want to become are Fatheads, the oversized wall decorations. The meeting room at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center is filled with them, showing former Buckeyes receivers like Santonio Holmes, Michael Jenkins, Brian Hartline and Thomas.

The most recent Fathead belongs to Curtis Samuel, who came in with McLaurin, Campbell and Dixon in 2014 but fast-tracked to stardom, went three and out, and became a second-round pick in 2017. "That really hit home with them," Smith said, referring to McLaurin, Campbell and Dixon. "They intrinsically said, 'That's gotta be me.'"

With this group, though, the goals are always plural. They know about the 2014 receivers, who helped Ohio State win its most recent national title. Campbell thinks the group set a standard, but he quickly adds that the 2018 version has more depth.

"We definitely have the talent, with everyone coming back, to be the top receiver group in the nation," Campbell said. "Anything less than that is selling ourselves short, honestly."

It has been a six-year process, according to Smith, to build a wide-receiver room like this one. It's a room where hard work matters but so does laughter, where longevity matters and so does legacy, particularly for those who can see the finish line.

"I feel like if all six of us receivers can get on that wall one day," McLaurin said. "Five or six years down the line, when we're all gone, you'll get a Buckeye receiver looking at that wall like, 'Dang, all those guys played together at one time?'

"That's when our legacy will be set in stone."