Ohio State hasn’t scored a kickoff return touchdown since 2010. Demario McCall expects to change that in 2018.
"Yeah, I feel pretty confident about a couple return touchdowns," McCall said when reminded of Ohio State’s return touchdown drought. "Just based on the guys blocking for me. I’ve definitely got confidence in them."
Although Ohio State just started spring practices last week, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer has already anointed McCall as his choice to be the team’s starting kickoff and punt returner, encouraging the redshirt sophomore to prove that he should lead the Buckeyes in that phase of the game this season.
"I want him to be our returner," Meyer said Tuesday. "That's his spot. And he's training as if that's the position. So he's watching videotape. He's training. He's doing it no different than if he's a starting corner or starting receiver."
In recent years, Ohio State has tended to rely on players who also have established roles on offense to handle kick and punt return duties. In 2017, K.J. Hill was Ohio State’s punt returner for the entire season, Parris Campbell was Ohio State’s kickoff returner for the first half of the season and Mike Weber was Ohio State’s kickoff returner for the second half of the season.
For more reasons than one, though, it makes sense for the Buckeyes to hand return duties over to McCall, who appeared in just four games last season and does not currently project to make the Buckeyes’ two-deep on offense.
After undergoing hernia surgery at the end of last spring, McCall never felt fully healthy last fall, which is why the Buckeyes ultimately decided to shut him down so he could take a medical redshirt. But even if he had been healthy, it still might have been difficult for him to find the field, with at least six wide receivers (Campbell, Hill, Terry McLaurin, Johnnie Dixon, Austin Mack, Binjimen Victor) and three running backs (J.K. Dobbins, Weber, Antonio Williams) established ahead of him on the depth chart.
McCall is considered to be a full-time H-back now, working with the wide receivers with the potential to play a similar role to that which Curtis Samuel played for the Buckeyes two years ago. Going into his third year at Ohio State, McCall says he now feels "very comfortable" playing that position.
"I’m getting to the point where the route running is just becoming natural, and learning the plays is becoming natural," McCall said last week.
McCall believes the biggest thing that has kept him off the field in his first two years at his Ohio State has been his health, as he said he had battled groin injuries since arriving at Ohio State. Now, though, he feels like he is back to 100 percent.
"I feel like now that I’m healthy, I can definitely show who I am," McCall said.
Yet with all of Ohio State’s top six receivers and top three running backs from last season back on the roster for this season, it’s still going to be difficult for McCall to earn regular playing time on offense. That’s not to say he won’t have the opportunity to earn playing time, but he’s likely going to have to beat another talented player out to earn a spot in the Buckeyes’ regular offensive rotations.
That said, the 2015 four-star recruit from North Ridgeville, Ohio, is too talented to keep off the field altogether, and special teams – where the Buckeyes expect players to establish themselves before playing regularly on offense or defense, anyways – could be McCall’s opportunity to make his mark in 2018.
An explosive athlete with both the speed to run away from defenders and the agility to make them miss, McCall could prove to be a substantial upgrade for the Buckeyes in the return game.
Weber proved to be ineffective in his stint as the Buckeyes’ kickoff returner, averaging just 15.9 yards per return. Hill didn’t make a big impact in the punt return game, either, averaging just 5.5 yards per return.
Additionally, it makes sense for the Buckeyes to take their key offensive players out of the return game – especially if they have the potential to upgrade in the process – because of the increased risk of injury those plays create.
While Campbell certainly showed he could provide a spark in the kick return game last season, averaging 36.6 yards per return (which would have been the second-highest average in the Football Bowl Subdivision if he had a qualifying number of attempts), he did not return to that role after being knocked out of back-to-back games with head injuries, including one that occurred on special teams.
Hill, meanwhile, is sidelined for the entire spring after undergoing rotator cuff surgery on his shoulder – surgery he needed after suffering a shoulder injury while attempting to catch a punt in the Cotton Bowl.
K.J. Hill pulling a tire while wearing a sling. Hill had rotator cuff surgery on his shoulder in January. pic.twitter.com/Lxrio6UdYD— Dan Hope (@Dan_Hope) March 8, 2018
There was reason to wonder why Ohio State didn’t turn to McCall instead of Weber – though health apparently was the reason – to replace Campbell last season, as McCall’s skill set is seemingly better suited to returning kicks than Weber’s. Ohio State has had more than its share of issues with fielding punts in recent years – especially in the years of Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson as punt returners – so McCall will need to prove that he can be reliable in catching punts to secure that job.
That said, the opportunity to become Ohio State’s next star in the return game – potentially its biggest star as both a kickoff and punt returner since Ted Ginn – is right in front of McCall, and Meyer wants to see him seize the opportunity, putting the onus on McCall to prove he deserves it.
"It's on him," Meyer said. "The job description’s very clear. The first two years, it's kind of on us. And once you start getting to be in year three, that's on you. And you either need to perform, or you're not going to perform. And it's on him. And the good thing is he's responding very well."
McCall agrees with his coach that it’s time for him to step up and prove himself. He’s confident, though, that he will do so, stating his goal is to be an All-American as a return specialist this year.
"I definitely agree with what he said, 110 percent," McCall said. "And I agree, that he said, it’s on me. It’s on me to get my role on the field. So that’s what I’m going to do, and keep working at it."