Ohio State Will Need to be Special to Have a Shot at the National Championship

By Kyle Rowland on April 15, 2013 at 9:30a
23 Comments
Should have been a chip shot.

The largely unspoken topic during Ohio State's 15 spring practices was special teams. There were plenty of discussions about Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes’ high-octane offense, and about the fearsome foursome on the defensive line. But there was scant mention of the part that often decides national championships.

Whether it’s field goals, punting, kick returns or coverage units, special teams is a vital piece to every team with designs on winning it all. They say defense wins championships, which is largely true, but football remains a team game – offense, defense and special teams.

With Jim Tressel as head coach, Ohio State fans learned to appreciate the plays they used to miss due to bathroom breaks. He popularized the punt, famously calling it the most important play in football. During his tenure, the Buckeyes pieced together some of the best special teams units in the country (minus a few coverage units). Coinciding with that was a decade of dominance.

A change in head coaches didn’t alter Ohio State’s success – it did finish 12-0 last season – but the special teams were far from pretty. Multiple blocked punts were returned for touchdowns, there was a 100-yard kick return and the field goal unit was last in the country in makes. The Buckeyes did only attempt 11 field goals on the season, but the 72.7 percent conversion rate still wasn’t impressive.

“Special teams have to improve, and they will improve,” said Kerry Coombs, who was recently named special teams coordinator.

Urban Meyer doesn’t take special teams lightly. He’s preached their importance since he became a head coach at a tiny outpost in Northwest Ohio, and he’s proven that by spending time with kickers and punters during each practice. He’s also made it clear that the first step to being a contributor is making a splash on special teams.

“If you’re not performing, there’s going to be conversations about that and why you’re not embracing your role,” Coombs said. “Our expectation is that if you're a starter, you’re on one of the two (coverage) teams. If you’re not a starter, then you should be on all four. And if you're not, then why not? Why are you not competing to be that guy?”

Last season, Meyer doubled as head coach and special teams coordinator. During the offseason, however, Coombs was promoted to the latter position. He has experience having held the same title at Cincinnati, so the move made sense. In naming Coombs the special teams coordinator, Meyer cited his “expertise” and “true passion for special teams.” He also called Coombs an “excellent motivator.” Have truer words ever been spoken?

“The special teams have always been a part of the game that I have enjoyed coaching,” Coombs said. “These plays are so critical to the success of a team, and they can really swing momentum. I look forward to having an increased role in the development of them.”

Before Coombs even got the job, Ohio State was hit with bad news. Punter Johnny Townsend, a longtime verbal commitment, performed the old switcheroo when it came time to make his commitment official, opting to stay close to home and attend Florida, his favorite school growing up. Combined with the graduation of Ben Buchanan, it left the Buckeyes with zero scholarship punters.

Instead of having Townsend kick for the next four seasons, Ohio State’s hand was forced. The duties now fall on placekicker Drew Basil, who last punted in high school. In the spring game on Saturday, Basil punted three times with subpar results. One was downed inside the 10, one traveled just 30 yards and the other ventured 39 yards. Basil averaged 34 yards per punt.

“IT’S A LOT OF MAN STUFF. I'VE GOT TO BEAT MY MAN, I'VE GOT TO DO MY JOB, I'VE GOT TO GROW UP. ANYTHING LESS IS UNACCEPTABLE.”

During spring practice, Coombs described Basil as “talented” and sounded confident in his new punter’s abilities.

“He was a great punter in high school,” Coombs said. “Very comfortable, great poise, and his operation times are outstanding. We can win with Drew Basil as the punter.”

That much is true. With an offense equipped with rocket boosters, a punter might not even be needed. And the defense could be so destructive that the Buckeyes could buck conventional wisdom and cover up a deficiency in their game.

“Punting, I have some concerns,” Meyer said. “(Basil) can certainly do it. When you watch him hit one, it’s a beautiful thing. But he doesn’t have that experience, so I’m very concerned at punter.”

The field goal kicking was “good, not great,” according to Meyer. Wind gusts up to 21 miles per hour made it difficult, with Basil making nearly all of his attempts from inside 45 yards. The misses only started adding up once he moved beyond 45 yards, which is not automatic territory for kickers, though Basil did connect from 52 yards out.

“I’m very happy with him as field goal kicker,” Meyer said.

Over the summer and once fall camp commences, Coombs will start limiting Basil’s kicking. That’s right, he’ll want Basil to rest his leg. The treatment of a placekicker who doubles as the punter is similar to that of a pitcher – they’re placed on a pitch count, or in this case a kick count.

The magic number for Basil is 120 boots per week. A tired or overworked leg could derail the massive plans the Buckeyes have for the season ahead.

“We count them, we chart them,” Coombs said of Basil’s kicks. “We’ve got all of that stuff down.”

There were no glimpses of the freak show or piranhas with the absence of kickoffs and all punts being fair caught. Both of those units showed progress last season until they were cut down with injuries and saddled with youth and inexperience.

No unit on the team has struggled more than kick and punt coverage in recent seasons. It has turned into Ohio State’s biggest Achilles heel. Going as far back as the 2010 Rose Bowl and as recent as last season’s Purdue game, return men have almost spelled doom for the Buckeyes.

Coming up short of the ultimate goal – a crystal football – is hard enough. To do so because of suspect special teams would be unforgivable to Buckeye Nation, a group that numbers over one million and has waited more than a decade for another national title.

“We weren't good, and we have to be better,” Coombs said. “That’s the mantra. It’s more effort-based than anything. It’s a lot of man stuff. I've got to beat my man, I've got to do my job, I've got to grow up. It’s got to be a priority for me to do my job and be successful.

“Anything less is unacceptable.”

23 Comments

Comments

sir rickithda3rd's picture

this yr is gonna be big

mark may wins douchebag of the year... again

gravey's picture

It seems like that after 2002, our special teams were pretty ordinary; but the die had been  cast and  Tress' teams always had a reputation for being great on special teams.  I'm not it was always deserved.  The return game seemed awful and the coverage teams were inconsistent.
On the other hand, I might just have focused on the negative aspects.

AcrossTheField11's picture

We've had some pretty phenomenal special teams units after 2002.  Teddy Ginn returning kickoffs / punts 2004 - 2006 made the unit above average in and of itself for those years.  I also remember Antonio Smith flying down the field and murdering people on punts / kickoffs.  Josh Huston and AJ Trepasso also come to mind in terms of standouts on special teams.  
To cap it all off, I don't remember very many mistakes with the special teams units under Tressel.  That may be where they provided the most value is that he could count on them to do what they were supposed to do, which helped him to excecute his game plan.  

Time and change will surely show how firm they friendship... O-HI-O.

Zofinda's picture

Groom and Nugent were pretty outstanding in the kicking game in 2002. Other aspects of the special teams I cant recall.

acBuckeye's picture

Chris Gamble and Michael Jenkins were pretty dope.

Ahh Saturday's picture

It's possible that after Braxton, Basil might be the most indispensable player on the team. 

AcrossTheField11's picture

Shazier is up there... and pretty much any o-lineman for that matter. 

Time and change will surely show how firm they friendship... O-HI-O.

QBYBuckeye's picture

Last year we had only 11 field goal attempts in 12 games, and 4 of those were in game 12.
This year we will do the same with punts -- 11 punts in 12 games.
Special teams will have to focus on kick off coverage, because I expect 7 or 8 kickoffs every game.
How is THAT for expectations?

New York Buckeye

Earle's picture

Here's the thing, though:  You may not have to worry about FG's, punts, and kick coverage in the games that we win by 3 TD's or more, but it is those tight games where the game can turn on a missed FG, a poor punt, or a big return that I'm concerned about.  We may end up with 10 games where the kicking game is more or less incidental to the outcome, but in the other 4 I'd like to be a lot more confident in our special teams than I am right now. 

Italics are for emphasis; an ellipsis represents an unfinished thought.

QBYBuckeye's picture

I agree.  My comment was intended to be provocatively tongue in cheek...

New York Buckeye

Earle's picture

Well, mission accomplished.  Consider me provoked.  Your comment just reminded me of all the "We'll never need to punt!" comments that got thrown around when we lost that punter on signing day.  You never need a good punter/kicker/snapper/holder/backup QB.  Until you do.

Italics are for emphasis; an ellipsis represents an unfinished thought.

Doc's picture

Since Teddy Ballgame left our returners have been less than stellar.  But, comparing them to Ginn is less than fair.  Coombs will have them ready, mark my words.

"Say my name."

teddyballgame's picture

I'm right here, brah

nickma71's picture

Too bad Tom Tupa can't go back there and punt.

zbd's picture

Must be the easiest football schedule in history: Buffalo? San Diego State? Florida A&M? No Michigan State, Wisc & Penn State at home?  Only 1 game season at Ann Arbor.

Ethos's picture

this would be a mentality I pray the players do not have.

"What do you need water for, Sunshine?!" - Coach Coombs, if you don't love this man, you have no soul.

NoVA Buckeye's picture

That's suggesting that Michigan State's actually going to be good. I have them missing their bowl game this year. WALRUSES GONNA WALRUS

The offseason begins when your season ends. Even then there are no days off.

Buckeyeholicwompa's picture

Gotta wonder if Urban is going to be more inclined to go for it on 4th down if were in the opposing teams territory but not quite within comfortable reach of a field goal. I'd say going for it on 4th is going to be something common we're going to see this Fall. Our offense will be peppered up and ready for the challenge, heck Urban even went for it on 4th several times last season!

BuckeyeNationProblems's picture

Braxton can't punt. Slash. 

Matt

t-dub's picture

I would think that we can find a viable return guy this year among the Backs and receivers.
I hope Coach combs can revive Basil's inner Punter, although its good for a Disney movie I'm not interested in open try outs.... 

"What is our aim, I can tell you in one word. Victory" Winston Churchill

MediBuck's picture

I have high hopes for our special teams, as there will be a bunch of real athletes (Vonn Bell, Mike Mitchell, etc.) who may get less starting playing time in their official positions but will find their way onto huge momentum-changing moments in ST situations.

"There is a force that makes us all brothers, no one goes his way alone." --Woody Hayes

acBuckeye's picture

The punting unit really worries me. I can't remember the last time I said that. After the blocked kicks last year, and now add in an inexperienced punter, it's conceivable that that unit could cost us a game. If we have to punt from inside our 20, the pace of my heartbeat will increase exponentially.
BTW Kyle -- it wasn't just some subpar coverage units during Tressel's era, but he also fielded some pretty awful return teams at the end of his tenure.