Ohio State’s kickoffs have been a source of frustration this season for head coach Urban Meyer and Buckeyes fans alike.
After expressing dissatisfaction with Blake Haubeil’s performance as the Buckeyes’ kickoff specialist for the first five games of the season, Meyer replaced Haubeil with Sean Nuernberger for the start of last week’s game against Maryland. That kicker switch only made things worse, however, as Nuernberger clearly struggled in the role, having one kickoff returned for a touchdown while knocking another kickoff out of bounds in an ugly day for Ohio State’s special teams.
Ohio State has already allowed 734 kickoff return yards this season, more than any other team in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The Buckeyes’ issues on kickoffs appear to stem largely from their kickoff strategy, as Meyer and special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs typically instruct their kickoff specialists to kick the ball into the coffin corner – between the 10-yard line and the end zone and outside the numbers – instead of simply kicking the ball as hard as they can.
The premise behind that strategy is that because Ohio State has so many elite athletes on its kickoff team, the Buckeyes should be able to get to the opposing kickoff returner and bring him down before he can get the ball to the 25-yard line, where an opposing offense would start with the ball on a touchback. That strategy has often worked in the Buckeyes’ favor, even on many occasions this year, as the Buckeyes have made stops inside the 25 on exactly 50 percent – 24 of 48 – of their kickoffs this season.
That strategy can easily backfire, however, because it requires the kicker to hit the ball with precise accuracy and significant hangtime in order to execute it properly. And Ohio State has yet to find a kicker who can do that consistently – the Buckeyes even gave walk-on Bryan Kristan a shot against Army, but his lone attempt resulted in a kickoff out of bounds – this season, resulting in illegal kickoff penalties and long kickoff returns on some of Ohio State’s other kickoffs that have given opposing teams better field position.
Because of that, many Ohio State fans have been asking a simple question: "Why don’t the Buckeyes just kick the ball through the end zone?"
Meyer, however, says the answer isn’t that simple.
"We have trouble kicking it through the end zone too," Meyer said Tuesday on the Big Ten teleconference. "If it was that simple, I’d do that. It’s more complicated than that."
That doesn’t mean, though, that Meyer hasn’t considered making a change to the Buckeyes’ kickoff strategy; he just hasn’t yet figured out a change that improves the results.
"You don’t fit a square peg in a round hole," Meyer said. "You do what you can do, and we’re still figuring out what we can do."
“We have trouble kicking it through the end zone too. If it was that simple, I’d do that. It’s more complicated than that.” – Urban Meyer
The issues, in Meyer’s opinion, stem primarily from the kickers themselves, as the Buckeyes have had to replace their kickoff specialist from the year before for a fourth consecutive season.
"I’m still befuddled with, we’re the only team in the country that can’t kick the ball down the field," Meyer said after Saturday’s game against Maryland, adding that he would have to "strongly evaluate" the kickoff game this week.
That evaluation process was ongoing as of Tuesday; unlike last week, when Meyer declared on Monday than Nuernberger would replace Haubeil on kickoffs, Meyer has declined to name a kickoff specialist for this week’s game at Nebraska, with both Nuernberger and Haubeil listed as co-starters on this week’s depth chart.
Nuernberger’s bad game on Saturday – his first game ever handling kickoffs for the Buckeyes – doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t perform better if given another opportunity. Haubeil, a highly rated true freshman who didn’t have to worry about kicking the ball into the coffin corner in high school, should be a candidate to improve as he gains experience in practice.
But until one of those kickers proves he can consistently hit his kickoffs accurately and precisely – or at least prove that he can boot the ball through the end zone consistently – there won’t be a simple solution to Ohio State’s kickoff problem.