Ohio State coach Urban Meyer hasn’t hesitated to show his dissatisfaction with the performance of his kickoff unit for most of this season.
Entering this week’s game against Penn State, however, Meyer has had a different tone. It’s a tone that indicates an increased level of confidence that his kickoff unit – and specifically, his kickoff specialist – will be able to get the job done.
"We’ve worked very hard at the actual kicking part of it, we’ve made some adjustments and I feel very good," Meyer said Wednesday during his final press conference previewing the Penn State game.
It’s good that Meyer’s feeling good about his kickoff unit, because Ohio State needs its kickoff unit to be at its best on Saturday. In a game where the Buckeyes cannot afford to give up big plays on special teams, they will face the challenge of kicking off to Saquon Barkley, arguably college football’s most dynamic player with the ball in his hands.
Although Barkley is better known for his exploits as a runner and receiver on offense, he has also been effective returning kicks, albeit on far fewer reps. While he has only nine total kickoff returns in seven games – largely a result of Penn State’s defense allowing less than two scores per game – he has averaged 30.3 yards per return, the fifth-best average in the country, including a 98-yard return for a touchdown against Indiana.
Ohio State’s offense should be able to score more points against Penn State than most teams, but that also means Barkley is likely to have more kickoff return opportunities than usual.
The Buckeyes have allowed more total kickoff return yards (803) than any other team in the Football Bowl Subdivision, but only 17.8 average yards per kickoff return, which ranks 18th nationally. The Buckeyes allowed only 69 yards on five kickoff returns – an average of 13.8 yards per return – in their last game against Nebraska.
Ohio State has had some bad moments on kickoffs, allowing four kickoff returns of 30-plus yards – including a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown to Maryland’s Ty Johnson – and have had four kickoffs out of bounds, including one at Nebraska, which are bad because they allow opposing teams to take over possession at the 35-yard line.
Meyer seems to be encouraged, though, that the Buckeyes had fewer issues in the kickoff game against Nebraska to go along with what he has seen over the past two weeks in practice.
"The better I feel about them, then the more I challenge them," Meyer said Monday. "I feel great. Other than a couple bad ones."
“We’ve worked very hard at the actual kicking part of it, we’ve made some adjustments and I feel very good.”– Urban Meyer
Meyer said the Buckeyes have changed where they are aiming their kickoffs, which he believes has made a positive difference.
"A lot of it has been the placement of the kick, so we've adjusted that, and it's changed," Meyer said. "What's the definition of insanity? Keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results."
With Meyer as head coach and Kerry Coombs as special teams coordinator, Ohio State has typically instructed its kickers to attempt to place the ball between the 5-yard line and the goal line and between the field numbers and the sideline on kickoffs. An inability to do that consistently by Ohio State’s kickoff specialists this year, however, has led to more kicks that have gone out of bounds or left the coverage team susceptible to giving up big returns.
Meyer hasn’t specified how those placement instructions have changed, but kicker Blake Haubeil appeared to aim most of his kicks for the hashmarks instead of outside the numbers against Nebraska, with three of his kickoffs going into the end zone – two of which wound up as touchbacks.
Meyer hasn’t even specified who his kickoff specialist will be against Penn State – presumably Haubeil, but Sean Nuernberger is still listed as a co-starter on the Buckeyes’ depth chart – but he says he does like the personnel the Buckeyes have on that unit, with a kickoff coverage unit led by Elijaah Goins, Justin Hilliard, Keandre Jones, Amir Riep and Zach Turnure, among others.