COLUMBUS, Ohio — Upon arriving on Ohio State's campus in January, Austin Mack made a proclamation to J.T. Barrett.
Wiser now than he was three years ago when he himself was an early enrollee, the Buckeyes' quarterback received Mack's message with a healthy amount of skepticism.
Letting the new Ohio State wideout know that living up to the impressive expectations he had already set for his college career would be easier said than done, Barrett reminded Mack of just who he was aiming to replace in the Buckeyes' lineup in the coming year.
"I asked what position he plays and he said 'X' [receiver]," Barrett recalled of a conversation with Mack in February. "In our offense at X, you've got to be a Mike Thomas, you've got to be a dog. There's a reason why his Twitter handle is @CantGuardMike. That wasn't an accident, it was on purpose. So it's one of those deals of go get a spot, because in the spring that's when you go win a job."
Through the Buckeyes' first six practices of the spring, Mack is yet to have officially been named the replacement for Thomas, who could very well be the first receiver selected in this spring's NFL draft.
But so far, the reviews have been good for the former 4-star prospect, who could just as easily be preparing for his senior prom instead of squaring off with Ohio State's cornerbacks on a daily basis this spring.
"Austin Mack is going to play next year," Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer said of Mack following just Ohio State's second practice of the spring session. "It's two days and I know it's too early to say that, which I have a tendency to over-evaluate guys and get too excited about them, but he's doing fantastic."
And Meyer's right; we've seen this hype train coming out of his camps in Columbus before. In 2013, it was Dontre Wilson who was billed as the "next Percy Harvin," while the following year saw the Ohio State staff tussle with removing the redshirt from tight end-turned-linebacker-turned-defensive end Sam Hubbard. Last season, it was receiver K.J. Hill who similarly drew rave reviews before ultimately spending the first year of his college career redshirting.
But unlike his predecessors in the Meyer-produced hype train, Mack meets the criteria of playing a position in need of immediate help on the Buckeyes roster. It's not just Thomas who's walking out the door, but Jalin Marshall, Braxton Miller and Nick Vannett as well, as Ohio State will be replacing 80.6 percent of its 2,455 receiving yards from a year ago.
That should leave plenty of playing time available for Mack, who totaled 41 receptions for 805 yards and six touchdowns in his senior season at Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Luers, according to 247Sports. Only aiding the 6'2", 205-pounder's cause this spring has been a receiving room depleted by injuries, with fellow Buckeye wideouts Noah Brown, Curtis Samuel and Corey Smith each missing time with health issues.
That's left ample opportunity for Mack to shine, just as he apparently did during a spring scrimmage on Saturday after which Meyer sang his praise.
"Austin Mack continues to earn time," the fifth-year Ohio State head coach said on Tuesday.
And while he may have been hesitant when it came to putting Mack in the same class as his former top target, Barrett has already seen several of the same attributes in the Hoosier State product he witnessed in Thomas. Most notably, the "dog" mentality Barrett says is so necessary in an "X" receiver has already shown up in Mack, who has looked like a natural breaking in and out of routes and catching the ball in practice sessions that have been open to the media this spring.
"I think early, which is crazy, is Austin Mack," Barrett answered when asked who's wowed him this offseason. "He's got a little fight in him. When things are hard in our workout, those are the times when you see he's got a little 'dog' in him."
Just how far that "dog" ability will carry him in his freshman campaign is still unclear. But as he approaches the halfway point of the first spring of his college career, Mack has emerged as the one name Meyer has mentioned on a routine basis as a player who's impressed him this offseason.
That's certainly been a welcomed development in Columbus, where a stable of once-highly touted players aims to replace two potential first-round picks in Thomas and Miller, and a potential third draft pick in Marshall. To this point, however, players like Johnnie Dixon, Parris Campbell, James Clark and Torrance Gibson have failed to live up to the hype, due in part to the lack of opportunities that were available to each on such a loaded depth chart a year ago.
"We have the guys with the potential, but that's not good," Meyer said on Tuesday. "Potential is a neat word for the first three or four months, but then after six months if you keep saying it that's not a good word to have."
Mere months into his college career, however, Mack appears to be making good on more than just his potential. It may just be a start, but it's certainly a promising one as Mack attempts to make good on the lofty expectations that have now been set both for and by him at Ohio State.
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.
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