The first step to earning playing time on Ohio State’s offense or defense is to earn playing time on the Buckeyes’ special teams.
Since Urban Meyer became the Buckeyes’ head coach prior to the 2012 season, he has repeatedly expressed that his players must earn playing time on special teams first before earning playing time on offense or defense. While there have been some exceptions (such as J.K. Dobbins last year), Meyer has mostly held true to that mantra, as most of the Buckeyes who have gone on to star in other phases of the game over the past six years have earned their stripes on special teams first.
As such, Ohio State’s special teams units often provide an early glimpse into who will be the team’s stars of the future.
Ohio State’s field goal kicker (Sean Nuernberger), kickoff specialist (Blake Haubeil), punter (Drue Chrisman) and long snapper (Liam McCullough) are all back from last season, while Meyer has also said that Demario McCall is in line to be both the primary kickoff returner and punt returner for the Buckeyes this season.
Which players will make up the rest of those special teams units is less certain. But those players could be just as important to the Buckeyes’ success in the third phase of the game this season.
Although special teams stars can feasibly come from any position – and aside from quarterbacks, every other position player is expected to be ready to play on special teams – linebackers and defensive backs are the most common standouts on kickoff and punt teams, while tight ends, running backs and wide receivers also often have the size and athleticism to be impact players on those units.
With some exceptions, Ohio State’s special teams units are also usually composed primarily of players who are backups on offense and defense, as starters are typically removed from most special teams units – with the exception of the punting unit, where the Buckeyes do regularly play starters – in order to protect them for their primary roles.
Given that, the top candidates to be impact players on special teams for the Buckeyes in 2018 are players from the aforementioned positions who are not projected to start on offense or defense this season, but who nonetheless possess the physical attributes to be playmakers. The following list gives consideration to both players who have already shown they can make their mark on special teams, and players with upside to earn their first significant playing time on special teams this year.
Pete Werner, LB
It’s still possible that Werner could earn a starting spot in Ohio State’s linebacker corps, but if not, he might be the top candidate to shine on special teams for the Buckeyes this year. A player who has earned praise from Meyer since he arrived on campus, Werner already showed playmaking ability on kickoff coverage as a true freshman last season. His speed and hard-hitting demeanor suit him well in that capacity, while he also saw playing time on the kickoff and punt return units last season and on the punting unit in the spring game.
Justin Hilliard/Baron Browning, LB
Hilliard and Browning were both regulars on special teams for the Buckeyes last season, but are competing to start for the Buckeyes at middle linebacker this season – at least until Tuf Borland is able to return from his Achilles injury. While whoever wins the starting job isn’t likely to see much playing time on special teams – at least as long as they remain in the starting lineup – whoever doesn’t is likely to be one of the Buckeyes’ core special teamers. Browning has as much upside as any player on the team, which could make it tough to keep him off the starting defense, but Hilliard is also a five-star recruit who made his mark on special teams last season after battling injuries in his first two years as a Buckeye.
Amir Riep, S
As a true freshman last season, Riep earned immediate playing time on the Buckeyes’ kickoff coverage unit, starting on that unit in all 14 of Ohio State’s games. He was one of only two true freshmen (along with Isaiah Pryor) to play on special teams in last year’s season opener, a testament to how quickly he made an impression in that phase of the game. So unless Riep wins the vacant starting safety job – which is a possibility, as that competition remains wide open, though Pryor is the apparent frontrunner – it’s likely that Riep’s presence on special teams will only grow in his sophomore year.
Marcus Williamson, CB
Williamson didn’t earn immediate playing time on special teams as a true freshman like Riep did, but established himself as a regular on the kickoff coverage unit in the second half of the season while also earning playing time on the kickoff return unit and as a gunner in punt coverage. He’s one of the quickest players on the entire team, and had an excellent showing at cornerback in the spring game, but he still could be on the outside looking into the cornerback rotation. If that’s the case, though, he has the tools to be one of the Buckeyes’ biggest special teams stars.
Shaun Wade, CB
Wade, like Williamson, demonstrates enough ability to contribute at cornerback this season but sits outside the Buckeyes’ top three at the position on the depth chart. After redshirting last season due to an abdominal injury, however, Wade should be a prime candidate to emerge as a playmaker in kickoff and punt coverage. Much like Jeffrey Okudah – who was one of the Buckeyes’ special teams stars last season, but is set to move into the Buckeyes’ cornerback rotation this year – Wade is a five-star recruit with top-notch physical attributes who the Buckeyes will want to get on the field in 2018 one way or another.
Tyreke Johnson, CB
A high school teammate of Wade and also a five-star recruit, Johnson is unlikely to see substantial playing time at cornerback as a true freshman but is too talented to redshirt if healthy, making him another prime candidate for special teams duty. Johnson has an elite combination of size and speed that gives him the potential to make an impact on special teams as both a tackler and blocker.
Brendon White, S
White played very sparingly as a true freshman – in part because he switched from wide receiver to safety and back multiple times – but while he’s probably a better athlete than defensive back at this point, he should have a shot to make his first real impact for the Buckeyes in 2018 on special teams. He saw occasional playing time on the kickoff coverage and kickoff return units in 2017, and has the size and speed to become a playmaker with continued development.
Dallas Gant, LB
As an early enrollee this spring, Gant impressed his coaches enough that both Meyer and defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said it was likely he would see playing time as a true freshman. It would be a surprise if he cracked the first-team linebacker rotation this year, but the four-star recruit from Toledo’s strong first semester sets him up to potentially earn an immediate role as a tackler and/or blocker on special teams.
Teradja Mitchell, LB
The most highly touted recruit among three linebackers in Ohio State’s class of 2018, Mitchell is another candidate to quickly earn playing time on special teams even though he was not an early enrollee. He’s another player the Buckeyes probably won’t want to redshirt, and he brings a skill set to Columbus that should enable him to be an impact tackler in kickoff coverage.
Master Teague III, RB
Before Ezekiel Elliott emerged as a star running back in his sophomore and junior seasons at Ohio State, he made an impact for the Buckeyes on special teams as a true freshman. It shouldn’t come as a surprise if Teague follows in his footsteps this year. While Teague’s opportunities to run the ball as a freshman will be limited by the presence of Dobbins and Mike Weber, an impressive spring as an early enrollee put him on track to be the Buckeyes’ No. 3 running back if he can prove he belongs on the field on a kickoff or punting unit.
Safety Jahsen Wint and tight end Rashod Berry were both regulars on Ohio State’s special teams at the beginning of last season, but their roles were reduced by the end of the year. Berry went from playing on the kickoff return and punt return units to only seeing special teams work on the field goal unit, while Wint went from starting on the kickoff unit to seeing no playing time at all. Their experience certainly makes them candidates for playing time on special teams, but they’ll have to prove they deserve to be back on those units.
Five of Ohio State’s top six wide receivers saw playing time on special teams last year, with the exception of Binjimen Victor, so it’s likely at least some of them will see special teams work again. Austin Mack, in particular, played a key role last season on the kickoff coverage unit. It’s also possible, though, that role could be taken over by a younger receiver such as Jaylen Harris, who will be looking to prove himself on special teams to improve his chances of earning playing time in the rotation.
Luke Farrell saw playing time on both the punting and field goal units in the spring game, but was named after the spring game as the Buckeyes’ starting tight end. While earning his way onto the field on special teams might have played a role in him also earning playing time on offense, he might not ultimately see much playing time on special teams during the regular season if he retains the starting job. Another candidate for playing time on special teams, though, could be fellow redshirt sophomore tight end Jake Hausmann, who is looking the first significant playing time of his career.
The field goal unit is typically an opportunity for second-string offensive linemen to get on the field, and that should continue to be the case this year. Malcolm Pridgeon, Branden Bowen and Joshua Alabi all saw playing time on the place kicking unit last season, and should be candidates to do so once again. Redshirt freshmen Josh Myers and Wyatt Davis and true freshman Max Wray could see their first playing time as Buckeyes blocking for field goals and extra points.
Like Johnson, Gant, Teague and Wray, true freshman cornerback Sevyn Banks could also be a candidate to parlay his experience as an early enrollee this spring into playing time on special teams this fall. Other true freshmen who were not early enrollees, but also have the potential to earn immediate playing time on special teams units this fall, include linebacker K’Vaughan Pope, safety Josh Proctor and H-back Jaelen Gill.