It's no secret how much Urban Meyer values the importance of solid special teams play.
He's touted it ever since his arrival in Columbus, appropriately linking strong special units performance with winning the field position battle, something not unfamiliar to Buckeye fans dating back to the days of Jim Tressel.
Despite Meyer's continuous talk about the value of strong special teams and his personal involvement in the various units, the Buckeyes haven't exactly been consistently spectacular.
In particular, Meyer could use a boost in the punt return game after mediocre results in 2016 and 2017.
|YEAR||TOTAL RETURNS||TOTAL RETURN YARDS||AVG PER PUNT RETURN||NATL RANK||TD|
As illustrated by the chart above, Ohio State's punt return unit finished right around the century mark in the national rankings via an average punt return hovering in the 5.15 to 5.53 yard range.
The two years before that were more like it as the Buckeyes ranked inside the top 20 nationally with return averages ranging from 11.28 to 13.07 per attempt.
Before that, in Meyer's first two seasons in Columbus, the Buckeyes were a little more pedestrian ranking 36th and 60th nationally in 2012 and 2013 respectively, though those two units did churn out a batch of touchdowns.
With the national rankings as a backdrop, here's a production breakdown of the primary punt return guys each season dating back to 2012:
|YEAR||RETURN MAN||ATTEMPTS||RETURN YARDS||AVG PER RETURN||LONG||TD|
Philly Brown handled punt return duties in 2012 and while he wasn't as sure-handed as you want (to put it mildly), he averaged a healthy 12.3 yards per return and tallied two touchdowns including a 76-yarder against Nebraska just hours after the third-annual Dubgate (Eat Too, Brutus back then) saw us auction off a pair of Mark Titus autographed compression shorts.
Brown wasn't quite as effective in 2013 as his yards per return dropped nearly five yards per attempt.
Jalin Marshall took over the role the following two seasons and proved the most-prolific punt return man of Meyer's tenure as he averaged 11.8 yards with a score in 2014 and followed that up with a 13.5 yard average in 2015. Marshall's production was dotted with important field flippers.
In 2014 he had a key 26-yarder in the big win in East Lansing and a 23-yarder against Michigan, among others. The following season, he had 76 return yards in a one-possession win over Indiana including a key 38-yarder to set up a touchdown, a 28-yarder versus Maryland, 64 return yards against Minnesota and four for 73 against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.
With Marshall off to the NFL, Dontre Wilson took over primary punt return duties in 2016 and despite his reputation as an electric player in space, Wilson averaged just 6.3 yards per return in 17 tries with a long of 27 yards. His best outings came against Tulsa (3/45) and Rutgers (3/37) as the unit overall ranked a Meyer-era-worst 105th in the nation.
Last year, the Buckeyes turned to K.J. Hill who produced the lowest yards per return of any primary guy since Meyer's arrival at 5.5 yards per attempt. To Hill's credit, he did do work late in the season with 27 return yards against Michigan including an 11-yarder leading to a touchdown three plays later. Against Wisconsin the Big Ten title game, Hill posted an early 14-yard return (and later a 22-yarder wiped out by penalty).
Though Hill was more sure-handed than most of his predecessors, his low average combined with the fact he'll see plenty of time on offense seems to have Meyer leaning toward Demario McCall getting first crack at being the primary punt returner this fall.
Meyer wants to get McCall some touches and with the logjam at H-back, inserting him as the primary punt and kick return guy is a logical way to do so.
As much as many of us gush about McCall especially specific to his spot-duty work on offense, he hasn't done much on punt returns in an admittedly small sample size. His five career punt returns have gone for 20 total yards with a long of 15.
That said, while the main job of a punt return man is to simply catch the ball, there's reason to be optimistic about what McCall might be able to do over the course of a season giving him a chance at call it 20-ish attempts.
Based on what we've seen the last two years, trying a fresh face even if you don't buy the McCall hype seems like a reasonable move.