Ohio State's Special Teams Units Range From Dominant to Concerning

By Chris Lauderback on August 9, 2014 at 11:15a
Punter Cameron Johnston turned in a record-setting freshman campaign.

While the offensive and defensive units are typically the most talked about groups as fans gobble up all the information they can in prep for the season opener, a championship caliber team strives to be elite in all three phases. 

This year's special teams units, though sporting the nation's best punter, aren't without question marks especially at placekicker where two guys who've never made a collegiate field goal vie for the job and at punt returner where there seems to be loads of talent but again, no player on the current squad has returned a punt at this level. 

With those factors serving as a backdrop, today we look at the candidates and how things might shake out on the various special teams units. 


Ohio State welcomed Australian sensation Cameron Johnston into the Ohio State family last summer after video evidence of his kicking expertise as a former Australian Rules Football player was viewed by Urban Meyer and special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs. 

The move paid off in spades as Johnston's unique skill combined with Coombs' direction to focus on high kicks yielding little opportunity for return produced a number of eye-popping results including:

  • Finishing 2nd in the B1G with a 44.0 punting average, also good for 16th nationally.
  • Leading the nation in percent of punts downed inside the 20, a ridiculous 31 of 49 kicks, good for 68%. 
  • Placing 2nd in the country with 28.6% of punts being downed inside the 10 (14/49). 
  • Against Wisconsin, Johnston punted six times: all six were downed inside the 20, five inside the 10.
  • Against Illinois, Johnston set Ohio State's single-game record with a 57.0 yards per punt average, topping Tom Skladany's 52.3 yards per punt mark set way back in 1976. 

Because of Johnston's ability, the punt coverage team was largely untested as they were forced to tackle a punt returner just seven times all season. Only Auburn had less true coverage attempts with five. Though the sample size was small thanks to Johnston's bionic leg, the punt coverage unit ranked 119th nationally in punt return average (16.43 yards per) and gave up one touchdown, a 67-yard gallop V'Angelo Bentley of Illinois. 

This year, the strategy of working to eliminate opponent return opportunities will likely be the same considering how well the stats stacked up in Ohio State's favor a year ago but with the continued infusion of speed and talented guys at positions like linebacker, efficiency of the coverage team should be enhanced. 

At the line of scrimmage, Ohio State finished 2nd in the nation with three blocked punts a season ago and didn't allow an opponent to block a punt in 49 tries. Again, as the talent pool gets richer in long, athletic players, an aggressive style should produce another handful of blocks. 

Though Ohio State held opponents' punt return game in check, they didn't exactly set the world on fire in that facet themselves, ranking 7th in the B1G and 60th nationally with a 8.1 yards per return mark and you might remember a muff or two. Philly Brown returned 23 of Ohio State's 27 opportunities (not counting the three blocks) averaging a pedestrian 7.8 yards per attempt. With Philly no longer on the roster, the job is wide open. This early in practice, it's hard to get a solid read on who will seize the role but there's reason to believe redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall will get plenty of looks over the coming weeks. Beyond Marshall, it's likely Dontre Wilson will get a chance to show what he can do though his expected workload in other areas could be a factor in ultimately leaving him out of the mix. 


Who will kick off when Ohio State tees it up against Navy is yet to be determined with both Kyle Clinton and Sean Nuernberger hoping to win the job. Clinton, a 3rd-year walk-on senior from Dublin Coffman, has five career collegiate kickoffs to his credit with two in 2012 with one touchback and three more in 2013 with another touchback in two years as Drew Basil's primary backup. Meanwhile, Nuernberger is a true freshman early enrollee with a big leg. The pair will also battle for the #1 place kicker role but more on that in a minute. 

Dontre hopes to make more noise in the return game this season.

Looking at kickoff coverage, the Buckeyes ranked 12th nationally surrendering just 18.4 yards per return while placing 2nd in the B1G with a 41.0 yard net kickoff average. The unit was forced to cover 74% of the kickoffs as 26% of Basil/Clinton's efforts went for touchbacks. This year, though it's hard to know yet if the kicker's strong suit will be putting the ball in the end zone or dropping it neatly in an inside the five corner of the field, the coverage unit should be more than serviceable based on the athletes Coombs will have at his disposal. 

On the kickoff return front, last year's crop of guys produced an average of 22.9 yards, good for 3rd in the league and 42nd nationally. Wilson was the primary return man with 21 tries featuring a long of 51 and an average of 24.9 while no other Buckeye on the roster had a legit attempt. This year, Wilson figures to again be back deep but the competition will be stiff with guys like Johnnie Dixon, Curtis Samuel, Marshon Lattimore, James Clark and Parris Campbell hoping to get enough attempts in camp to make a name for themselves. Unscientifically, I like Dixon and Samuel as the favorites to join Dontre back deep. 


One of the most important position battles on the entire team is at placekicker where Clinton and Nuernberger wage a battle to earn the job vacated by Drew Basil and his 90% accuracy from a year ago. 

Under most circumstances the senior would have the edge because it would likely come with experience but considering neither player has attempted a field goal at this level and Nuernberger's resume, the edge has to go to the young kid at this point. 

Clinton does have a perfect 3/3 extra point mark at Ohio State but Nuernberger comes in ranked as a top 10 kicker by all the major services. The two-time all-state product was 13/20 as a high school senior but his seven misses featured five blocks and misses from 54 and 56 yards though he did connect from 57 while also averaging 42 yards as a punter. 

With Urban's tendency to go for it on 4th and short, the placekicker has been a bit marginalized during his tenure in Columbus but in a tight game, a legit kicker is still a difference maker. With that in mind, Meyer and company are obviously hoping one of these guys puts a choke hold on the job and the favorite for now has to be the newcomer. 



Sims_tOSU's picture

If Lattimore does win one of the kick returned spots doesn't that mean he will have to change numbers?

James Mee's picture

Assuming Dontre is still back there, yes. This is the reason that Rod Smith and Jordan Hall switched up last year. 

BuckeyesALLDAY1's picture

We have speed everywhere this job can go to 5 different players idk where to began 


FitzBuck's picture

and you might remember a muff or two

I only remember one!

It haunts me.

Fitzbuck | Toledo - Ohio's right armpit | "A troll by any other name is still a troll".

+7 HS
James Mee's picture

I feel bad the Philly is going to be remembered in part by that muff. He played so well for us and that play just went poorly. He always did that, where he tried to make something out of nothing on a punt return. I get the idea, but you have to know the situation. 

+2 HS
cw823's picture

But those decisions are indicative of a coaching problem.  Watching him muff that punt that clearly required a fair catch, was like watching punt returners (across NCAA & NFL) retreat and catch a ball inside their own 10.  Heels on the 10, anything over your head goes in the end zone.

James Mee's picture

I'm not sure it is. He was a very talented punt returner and its hard to simulate punt returns in practice (you shouldn't be trying to kill your own player). He just liked to gamble. However, I will say, that Coombs should have made it clear that he should be very defensive on it, given the situation. 

JohnnyKozmo's picture

Actually, I remember quite a few muffs from college, and I loved every one of them.

Pain don't hurt-Dalton

+6 HS
Myc24's picture

Placekicker and punt coverage are my biggest ares of concern for this team. Hopefully all of these new, young guys show their talent on game days. 

"Because I couldn't go for three!"  - Wayne Woodrow Hayes

youngbuck32's picture

I'd rather not see job and choke in the same sentence.... Bad karma.

Can't is the real "C" word!

AndyVance's picture

How the Wonder from Down Under didn't with the Ray Guy Award last year is totally beyond me.

+1 HS
Frimmel's picture

Totally agree. The scary thing (in a really good way) is that he's probably going to be better this season. Do they just not give those sorts of awards to freshman?

+1 HS
AndyVance's picture

Do they just not give those sorts of awards to freshman?

I've been operating under that assumption in this case. Although with the nonsense of handing out the Heisman to whichever first-year QB has the hot hand these past couple of years, I had supposed the door was open to possibilities like a Johnston pulling in the Guy.

buckskin's picture

Number one priority for our punt return guy, ball security. I liked Philly as a receiver, but he always made me nervous catching the punt.

GVerrilli92's picture

Philly was a mediocre punt returner at best.

Took bathroom breaks when we received punts last year, because I'm of the camp that believes you need your most electric player returning. Philly was serviceable (sometimes) but nobody was threatened by him.

Let Dontre or Jalin take it this year, maybe even Dixon. I just remember how a good defense and awesome return game would demoralize the opposition. Back in 06: "You mean they stopped us, 3 and out, and now we have to kick it to this Ginn kid?" And in 4 plays the game would change entirely. 

I got a gray kitty, white kitty, tabby too, and a little orange guy who puts snakes in my shoes. Got mad MC skills, that leave ya struck, and I roll with my kitties and I'm hard as f*ck.

+1 HS
Toilrt Paper's picture

THE single most important factor in chosing a punt returner is sure hands, good vision and a clear mind. After that comes speed and quickness. 

Young_Turk's picture

Yeah, I expect a huge addition in the punt return if for no other reason then the aforementioned addition by subtraction.  There were a lot of poor decisions and execution in that area last year.  

Philly Brown just can't try to return that punt, under pressure, late in the third quarter like he did. With Ohio State up two scores, at 29-20, with just under four minutes left in the third, that's almost a situation where a coach could tell the returner to fair catch it no matter what. But Brown is a senior and a captain, so the Buckeyes probably trusted him there. That wasn't just a turnover, but a poor decision, and while physical errors happen, it was obvious that Meyer was frustrated by Brown's choice there. And he had a right to be.

“That was a big part of … Philly is one of those guys that I'd rather not do that,” Meyer said. “He's one of those skilled athletes and tries to … (he) really wanted to make a game-changing attempt to do something. Once again, he's not coached to do that. We're not playing the blame game guys. That was a big play, though.”

The problem with the idea is that the Buckeyes didn't need a big play there. They just needed to control the ball and eat up some clock. I joked during the game that Ohio State's kickoff return men should come out with the ball and kneel on the 1-yard line to force Ohio State to drive the ball 99 yards. That was the best way to eat clock and keep Clemson's Tajh Body and Sammy Watkins off the field.

The drive before the Brown fumble, Ohio State went 87 yards in nine plays, taking 4:47 off the clock, to build that 9-point lead. If Brown had called for the fair catch, Ohio State would have taken over with solid field position at its own 37-yardline with 3:36 left in the third quarter. Even just an OK drive would have taken the Buckeyes into the fourth quarter with a two-score lead.

“I had a big turnover and we had a couple plays called back,” Brown said. “You can't point the finger. You just take accountability for yourself and move forward.”

When it comes to knowing the situation of the game, and what's in your head at key moments, you can point at least a little at the return man and his coaches who allowed even the thought of taking an unnecessary chance like that creep into a veteran's head in the final 19 minutes of a 14-game season,.


Travis's picture

Cam Johnston definitely got a cinematic shot in my video.

He deserves it to.

the punter

They need a 2 to tie, a 3 to win it; Sylvester for threeeee... OOOOOOOOOHHHHHH OHHHHHHHHHHH WITH FIVE POINT ONE TO GO!!!

+1 HS
MauricXe's picture

hmm we have a 3rd year walk on eh? i wouldn't mind giving a scholarship to a quality kid.