At Ohio State, the Quickest Route to Playing Time is through Special Teams Play

By Kyle Rowland on September 4, 2013 at 9:15a
Future and current stars.

Few players begin their career as starters. The route to eventual stardom originates as a backup and special teamer. At Ohio State, even upperclassmen serve as regular special teams contributors.

Want to catch touchdown passes? Make a special teams play. Want to sack the quarterback? Contribute on special teams. Chris Fields and Noah Spence have been examples of this policy.

“We kind of have a rule around here that you can’t play unless you’re involved in special teams,” head coach Urban Meyer said.

The Buckeyes are an equal opportunity provider when it comes to playing time. You just have to earn it. From walk-ons to scholarship players to returning starters, any and all of the above can be seen on Ohio State’s special teams units.

Noah Spence had the Buckeyes lone sack in Saturday’s season-opening win over Buffalo. He also appeared on the punt coverage unit. Chris Fields has spent his entire career on special teams. He scored the biggest touchdown of the season a year ago and caught two scoring passes Saturday.

“Special teams is very critical,” Fields said.

“We have a philosophy that if you want to play your respective position, you have to provide some value to this team on special teams,” said running backs coach Stan Drayton.

Another coach brought into the fold on special teams is Mike Vrabel. During his exemplary career that included All-America honors, Vrabel stuck out on special teams units. He became a key contributor again in the NFL. 

A year after Meyer’s viewpoint on special teams and how it coincides with playing time took hold for the Ohio State football program, Fields has become one of the most improved players on the team. 

“I’ve been trying to get my value on the team as much as possible and everybody else knows that,” he said.

“It's difficult to get on the field.”

Someone who wouldn’t mind the same results is sophomore running back Bri’onte Dunn. He’s been lost in a shuffle that includes seven ball carriers. Inevitably, one – or more – person becomes the odd man out. Dunn has discovered he’s that guy.

But it’s not due to a lack of effort. Drayton said Dunn has continued to be a workhorse in practice. It translated into zero carries against Buffalo. 

“Bri’onte needs to continue to compete with his teammates to find a little bit more of a role on special teams so that he gets an opportunity to play on offense,” Drayton said. “It’s justified.”

Making his first career start at cornerback in place of the suspended Bradley Roby was Armani Reeves. He played far more defensive snaps than his previous career high of two. Reeves was on the field from kickoff until the clock read 0:00 in the fourth quarter against Buffalo.

He made a name for himself last season as a piranha on the kick coverage unit until a knee injury shortened his season. Reeves credited the special teams experience with molding his overall game. With Roby’s impending return, Reeves will once again shift over to special teams with the hope of spelling Roby for a handful of snaps each game.

“It’s difficult to get on the field,” running back Jordan Hall explained.

If Reeves looks to his right or left prior to Drew Basil’s kicking off, he may notice Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith. The idea is for them to add value to the special teams unit. Few teams in the country employ special teams that feature the preseason first- and second-string running backs. And by few, that number is hovering at zero.

“Nothing is given to these guys,” Drayton said. “Again, it starts with special teams.”

The importance levied toward special teams gives the position a dose of legitimacy with players. Hall said he’d be surprised to find out there’s another team in the country that practices special teams more than the Buckeyes. That emphasis has led to a quality in each coverage unit.

“It’s very competitive,” Fields said. “Coach runs a business that you gotta get stuff done. You’ve got to come out every day with a good day.“

That’s the focus needed is Ohio State wants syzygy within it’s three units – offense, defense and special teams.

“I think our kids understand the priorities special teams plays for our team," special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs said. "So I think they play really hard as a result of that.”

An adjective Coombs is happy to use when special teamers emerge. 


Comments Show All Comments

Jugdish's picture

At first, I was a little skeptical of this strategy especially for offensive players. LBs and DEs and the like would make great Piranhas, but I am now on board with all players giving 100% no matter what they are called on to do. Special teams need to be Special.

Remember to get your wolverine spayed or neutered. TBDBITL

jdagrava.1's picture

I like it too - it seems like a "pay your dues" type system.
On another note, the special teams can take Armani Reeves back and keep him there... forever...

"It takes a little something special to be a great player.  What you got in you, we're going to find out.  And if there's a touch of greatness in there, how cool would that be?"

-Urban F. Meyer

CC's picture

Generally I don't like "pay your dues" systems as it hinders those who have exceptional talent from day 1.  I think what they are really saying is "add value" which can be done on day one. Dontre for example.
That said, on every football team I ever played on the special teams were viewed as a place for the 2nd teamers and it took the emphasis off of special teams.  Consequently I never played on teams with really exceptional special teams.  I think the philosophy helps legitimize special teams which will definitely pay dividends.

AirForceNUT's picture

Give Armani a break.  It was his first start and they were obviously targeting him.

Chief B1G Dump's picture

I agree, this is now a Meritocracy.  If you're good and/or earn it, you're playing.  Period.  Regardless of age.
Not knocking Tressel, but his upperclassman lean seemed like a very union mentality.  Sometimes, it felt as if young talent was being blocked from PT by guys who were maybe safe but presented no flashes of brilliance.

AndyVance's picture

Observation: given the use of the word syzygy in this excellent article, Professor Rowland either studied astronomy in college, or watched Jeopardy last night (this was a Double Jeopardy answer in this year's Tournament of Champions, which is running again this week during summer hiatus).
Secondly, I love the type of competition and hunger this staff is working to instill in the players. Earning every minute on the field, every snap played... That's the way you build Champions.

BullCityBuckeye's picture

Kudos to you for at least recognizing the word.  +1 for you.
I honestly had to look that head-scratcher up in a dictionary:-)

Poison nuts's picture

Yeah - I thought it was a 6 letter 4 letter word.

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

droessl's picture

I thought it was another version of "Rirruto"

labuck's picture

I thought he just meant synergy.

MN Buckeye's picture

I didn't think it was even a word. Well, Vanna, I'll buy a vowel.

jdagrava.1's picture

LOL I saw it on Jeopardy as well!!

"It takes a little something special to be a great player.  What you got in you, we're going to find out.  And if there's a touch of greatness in there, how cool would that be?"

-Urban F. Meyer

buckeyemondo's picture

teachable moments are all well and good until someone tears an ACL.

captain obvious's picture

I cringe when I hear Carlos Hyde on special teams. Fringe starters on defense is one thing but putting offensive starters is another.
Then again Urban knows a lot better than me.
I just remember Gronkowski last year and Jason Seahorn years ago.

I'm a friend of thunder is it any wonder lightning strikes me

cajunbuckeye's picture

You don't cringe as much as MSU's Nick Hill.....

An angry fan...rooting for an angry team...led by angry coaches

captain obvious's picture

Great hit
this year your thrown out and suspended for an additional half

I'm a friend of thunder is it any wonder lightning strikes me

vtbuckeye's picture

Just hit the dude square in the numbers as soon as he catches the ball.  No kick catch interference, no penalty, just a great hit.  

droessl's picture

Anything that promotes competition over complacency is gold in my book. 

j05bucknut's picture

There were a lot of starters on special teams against Buffalo:
Philly Brown - Kickoff and Punt Return
Evan Spencer - Punt Return
Devin Smith - Punt Return
Doran Grant - Punt Coverage
Christian Bryant - Kickoff and Punt Coverage
Jeff Heuerman - Kickoff and Punt Coverage

MassiveAttack's picture

For a young 3-star guy, how are you supposed to get any playing time?  Play on Special Teams you say?  How do you do that if the first and second string guys are taking up all the ST spots?

The Ohio State University - "Haters love us!"

Poison nuts's picture

That's a valid point...

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

CC's picture

In my best Allen Iverson voice... "Practice"

Mirror Lake Jump's picture

Tyvis Powell, Devon Bogards, and Najee Muary (before he was left) were all lower ranked guys that found their way onto the special teams. Just have to work hard.

achillesx's picture

In my best Saul Goodman voice: "We've got a beggars-choosers situation, here."

InHartWeTrust's picture

Practice harder, better...and earn it.

hspbuy1's picture

I remember a few years back a young  man named Belasari played special teams very well.


pjtobin's picture

I back urban with whatever choice he makes. I enjoy watching our special teams do their thing. I forgot about that hit Hyde put on m st returner. Nice clean hit. He used his arms and exploded on him! I want more of that. 

Bury me in my away jersey, with my buckeye blanket. A diehard who died young. Rip dad. 

Buckeytrips's picture

I think if you are a 3* recruit and you are putting in the same effort as a starter and there is no drop off I would think the 3* would start to prevent an injury to the starter. JMO

CC's picture

I'm sorry, this makes no sense to me.  So if I'm a starter and I'm a 5* and you're my backup (presumably because I'm better) but somehow there is no drop off and you're a 3* then you should start?
I don't get it.