Ohio State has struggled to find a solution to its problems on kickoffs on this season.
One possible solution, and the possible solution it appears Ohio State will try next, is putting more of its top players – including players who start on offense and defense – on its kickoff unit.
"Oh yeah," said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer during Tuesday’s Big Ten teleconference when asked if there would be changes to who plays on the kickoff unit. "We’re going to make some changes on personnel, and just have to keep re-evaluating."
While Meyer himself hasn’t specified what those changes will be, the tone of his comments – and the fact that it’s already the ninth game of the season – would suggest that the Buckeyes aren’t going to turn to unproven backups, freshmen and walk-ons to play on their kickoff coverage team.
Ohio State wide receiver Austin Mack and linebacker Chris Worley – both starters – indicated after practice on Tuesday that they expect to see more first-team players on the field for kickoff coverage at Iowa on Saturday.
"In our special teams meeting today, (Meyer) made it clear that there’s going to have to be some guys that play a lot of football around here on offense or defense that may have to go into the game on special teams," Worley said.
Mack says the Buckeyes are looking for "more reliable people" on their kickoff coverage unit after a subpar performance by the unit against Penn State on Saturday. The Buckeyes allowed Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley to return the opening kickoff of the game 97 yards for a touchdown, proceeded to squib kick for the rest of the game and even still gave up another lengthy return of 59 yards on a short kickoff to Penn State linebacker Koa Farmer.
"People that’s going to get the job done," Mack said. "Because we can’t have what happened the last game. So that’s something that we have to be serious about and make sure we get done."
Going into Saturday’s game, Mack is the only starter who has seen regular playing time on the kickoff unit this season. He did not start on kickoffs against Penn State, but replaced Elijaah Goins in kickoff coverage for the second half of the game and has been on the kickoff unit in six out of eight games this season. Mack says he is expecting to be back in the lineup on kickoffs this week.
It hasn’t been specified which other starters might join Mack on the kickoff unit, but possible candidates include the Buckeyes’ linebackers, defensive backs and other wide receivers. Worley, who played on the kickoff unit as a freshman and sophomore before becoming a starter, said the linebackers have been told that they might need to play on the kickoff unit, and that they will all be ready to do so if needed.
"I talked to Coach Davis about it, I told him whatever you need," Worley said. "If it’s me, (Jerome Baker), (Dante Booker), that has to go in the game. We need to get to where we need to get, and that unit is not providing. We’re going to have to make changes, and we’re all willing to go make changes for it."
There are some potential drawbacks to playing starters on the kickoff unit. It puts those players on the field for more plays, keeping them less fresh. It requires them to spend more time working on special teams instead of their offensive or defensive positions in practice. Most significantly, it adds risk that a player who is important to the offense or defense could be injured.
It’s been suggested by some Ohio State fans and even former players that the simpler and safer solution would be trying to kick the ball through the end zone every time, taking the kickoff coverage unit out of the equation, but Meyer insists that his kickers have not proven capable to do that on a consistent basis.
That said, it’s not uncommon for Ohio State to use its starters on other special teams units. Co-starting wide receivers K.J. Hill and Parris Campbell and safety Jordan Fuller are regulars on the kickoff return unit. Defensive end Sam Hubbard, linebacker Jerome Baker and wide receiver Terry McLaurin are among the starters who play regularly on the punting unit. Linebacker Dante Booker, safety Damon Webb and cornerbacks Damon Arnette, Kendall Sheffield and Denzel Ward regularly see playing time on the punt return/block unit.
After allowing two kickoff return touchdowns in a season for the first time since 2010, it’s time for Ohio State to try some new players on its kickoff coverage unit.
Mack, who has not been on the field for either of the two kickoff return touchdowns, says the key for Ohio State to stop giving up big plays in that phase of the game is for everyone on the unit to be assignment-sound, which he says has not been the case.
"We just have to do our assignment, do our job, that’s simple," Mack said. "Every man has a job and they have to be able to execute it. We’ll get back to being able to reform and we’ll be just fine."
Worley didn’t know yet, as of Tuesday, whether he would be one of the new additions to the kickoff coverage team. He said whoever does, though, needs to step up.
"We’ll see what happens," Worley said. "We have great young players. They have to play great. We’ll see how that unfolds."