Pinpointing Problems of the Coverage Units

By Keith on September 15, 2010 at 4:00p

Coming off the dismantling of Miami, the soul warming glow of victory still radiates. Sending the Hurricanes back with another loss lends itself to a cruel sense of satisfaction knowing their misery has only deepened. Oh, how I love it so but that’s not to say there weren’t problems. Generally speaking, the game critiques fall in one of a couple categories like the goofy clock management at the end of the half or the anemic redzone touchdown efficiency. Those pale in comparison, however, to the outright disgust regarding the kickoff and punt coverage units.

It has all been well documented by now. Ohio State’s problems covering punts and kickoffs date back to Mycenae or maybe it was a bit after. We, at times, have been Tresselballed in a special teams sense. It’s kept teams in games, changed momentum and flipped the field more than we care to remember. Both Miami and Ohio State would have been substituting liberally by the fourth quarter if it weren’t for the two glaring breakdowns which provided the faint heartbeat for the boys from South Florida.

So, we know we have a problem but what’s the cause? That certainly is something the staff is working on but pinpointing the exact cause or common problem is difficult work. The Dispatch had their crack yesterday quoting some past and former players but putting my diagnostic cap on, I come up with three main issues that seem to be prevalent.

The Spread Punt Formation Isn’t Working

The staff has addressed the punt coverage in one interesting way. I’m not sure when exactly it was instituted but in the last year or so, the Buckeyes have moved to a spread punt formation. This formation places seven players horizontally at the line of scrimmage with much wider splits than normal. Then, there is a group of three blockers just in front of the punter called 'the shield'. The players are usually beefer lineman who pick off oncoming rushers who are attempting the block the kick.


Spread Punt Formation


The principles behind it are sound on paper. The main goal is help in punt coverage because the seven players immediately rush downfield to cover the kick. But, there’s a problem. It doesn’t work - at least not for our team. One problem is you have a relatively new concept being implemented and another is player personnel. Should the player break the return, he’ll typically only have to beat the three players who make up the shield and a punter, none of which are geared for tackling jitterbugs in the open field.  If that were to happen, immediately praying for the turf monster to make a magical tackle. Jaamal Berry knows.

I’d much prefer us to return to a standard punt formation. It’s what we know and it’s what has been successful in the past. And, I haven’t even gotten into the idea that more kicks seem to be blocked in the spread formation. Implementing the spread punt at some point down the line is fine but only after it’s been perfected and practiced enough times because we’ve tried it twice now (2007 was the other year) and it hasn’t worked either time. It’s absolutely fine to shelve something when it’s not working, even if everyone else is using it.

Poor Kick Placement

Often overlooked, kick placement plays a large role for the coverage units especially when it comes to punts. Using the sideline as a defender is a powerful weapon against teams with explosive returners because it limits options. The returner is forced to work within a constrained space where coverage units can ‘squeeze’ the play to the sideline. It also will trigger a higher percentage of fair catches or punts that go unfielded, all of which are wins for the coverage team. Of course, angling kickoffs is riskier business when you have a kicker who struggles to reach the endzones. Kicks that find themselves out of bounds are placed on the 40 yardline, in effect giving up a big return.

Unfortunately for Ohio State, many of the kicks and punts have been between the hashes. Derrell Johnson-Koulianos’s return in the Iowa game last year started on the near hash.  At least one of Oregon's Kenjon Barner's returns started almost exactly in the field as did the both touchdown returns Saturday. It sounds elementary but it gives the returner options and it forces the coverage team to have great discpline by staying in their lanes for a longer period.   The alternative is playing defense with the kick by pooching or squibbing it but, again, the effectiveness of both of these techniques is placement.

Breaking Down

No matter where the punt is placed or the formation it originated, players still should make the play when in position. Breaking down is a fundamental taught at young age but it’s been absent far too often.

On Miami’s punt return, two Ohio State players were in position to make the tackle as the ball was being caught. Instead, both overran the play and removed themselves from lending any further help to their teammates. I can appeciate the desire to keep your speed in order to make the tackle as quick as possible, but one also needs to slow down, gather balance and make the tackle or funnel the direction of the play to another teammate.   To his credit, Miami player Travis Benajmin did use a deceptive move by backing up and then running into the catch.   But, that or any other reason isn't a good excuse to give up six.

Needless to say, there is much work to do and things to tweak for special teams when you are ranked 109th and 113th in punt and kick coverage, respectively.  


Comments Show All Comments

DarthSweaterVest's picture

The uncalled block in the back on the kick-off return didn't help either...

BED's picture

Glad I'm not the only one to see that.

The Ohio State University, College of Arts & Sciences, Class of 2006
The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, Class of 2009

slippy's picture

Was it really a deceptive move or did Benjamin just mis-judge it til the last second?  If he did it on purpose kudos to him but I'm not sure about that.


Watching from the north stands (to Benjamin's back), the 2 first guys down looked like they were about to kill him.  Like you said, they should have slowed up to sure up the tackle.  They were in perfect position until at the last second he lunged forward about 2 yards and they were right out of the play.


I also hate hate hate with a passion the stupid spread formation.  I always saw it as run by lesser teams that couldn't run a real punt.

BuckeyeSki's picture


Banned from BlackShoeDiaries since 2008. Crime: Slander/Defamation of Character Judgement: Guilty

Olentangy's picture

i would love to hear a coach who uses it [JT or anyone in D1] talk about why they choose to utilize. i'm with you guys though, i've never liked it and i feel like there's a lot more opportunities for blown assignments and mistakes. but then again, i'm not a coach so i would definitely value the opinion of someone who is.

How firm thy friendship

KenK's picture

   "I always saw it as run by lesser teams that couldn't run a real punt."

Based on what I've seen so far, I believe you are right; we fall into that category.

Johnny Hooker: "He's not as tough as he thinks". Henry Gondorff: "Neither are we".

Keith's picture

Fair question the punt return.  Jason and I were in 17A and the catch happened right in front of us.  It looked to me like he did it on purpose but perhaps not.

MirrorLakeJump's picture

Surely there's room enough on the team for one guy who does nothing but kick the ball past the endzone on every kickoff. That would take away half the opportunities to let the opponent run one back.

RoweTrain's picture

I was also in the north endzone and obviously even though I don't know his thinking on the punt return but it looked like he did it on purpose. He's a regular punt returner and I think he had great position to make that fake. Remember, he already fair caught at least one punt earlier in the game so I believe he baited them into it.

Now, they just need to make some changes to get the blown coverages fixed but I'm ultimately excited about this team.

"Just bow up and go out and play." ~ D. Lee

"As it stands right now, I know I am the best athlete in college football." ~ B. Miller

iball's picture

Keith, great article. The opening paragraph is dead on.

Randy Shannon was one of the biggest trash talkers in the "U" history. I don't see why anyone's surprised he didn't give us any credit. So for that, he can take that ass whippin back to South Beach.

Jamaal Berry needs more touches period. Period.

“There’s one thing I have learned through all my adventures and conquests - it’s that some people are just wired for success. I had no choice when it came to being great - I just am great.” – Kenny Powers

Keith's picture

It feels great, doesn't it?  I was on cloud nine leaving the Stadium because I knew lips would be sealed from the Hurricane fans.   The only thing I heard from one was:  "Man, this is like the walk of shame for us."   

Yes, yes it was.  

Glad you enjoyed the article.  Thanks!

jack's picture

three tacklers overran the kick returner on more than one occasion Saturday. No matter how you design the coverage, keep the man in front of you and/or don't get pushed behind him and you win.

BuckeyeChief's picture

Alright, short of moving or getting Direct tv, what are my options to watch games? I am screwed because Fios isn't in my 'hood, the BTN doesn't (stopped?) streaming on-line football, so I am basically f'ed for most of the season.



"2014 National with it!!!"

Nik's picture 


it's what i used for the last two games, seemed to work well.  First game there was a password, but it was just "sports"

Dean's picture

If you've got Comcast, BTN is part of their Sports & Entertainment Pack (which is, I think, $9 a month)

BuckeyeChief's picture

Thanks all....I am in Cox cable country, no Comcast...I know of 1 bar, but I enjoy watching games at home more. Cox and the BTN are in a beef out here.

"2014 National with it!!!"

Nik's picture

do you have a ps3, or might even work on an xbox, never tried it.  You can stream it through their browser (at that website i mentioned earlier, it's just a justintv stream) and then full screen it, so you've still got the big-screen tv size, though the quality will obviously still be lacking, it's certainly watchable

BuckeyeChief's picture

I'll hook it up from my laptop...Cox kinda sucks out here, they even blanked out the NFC title game a few years ago in a dispute with Fox over channel assignment.

"2014 National with it!!!"

Buckeye_Mafia's picture

I don't care what formation they use, just as long as they get ahold of and bring down the return man. That is it. Formations and personnell matter not to me. End result of the play does though. And the obvious thing would be a quick tackle or tackle for loss. Or even better, forcing a turnover. Logically, it wont happen every time, but this is something that can cost the Buckeyes dearly in big games.

"At critical moments throughout the season, we learned about the character of this football team.  This was a team of true character, of true resilience." -- President Barack Obama