When Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel were the head coaches at Ohio State, there was never any question about how much of an emphasis they placed on special teams.
Four games into Ryan Day’s tenure as head coach, the Buckeyes have looked as impactful as ever in that phase of the game – especially in regards to blocking kicks and punts.
Ohio State has now blocked either a field goal attempt or a punt in three straight games – the first time in at least 10 years the Buckeyes have accomplished that feat – and is currently tied with Penn State and Northern Illinois for the most total kicks and punts blocked this season. Chase Young blocked a field goal against Cincinnati, Chris Olave blocked a punt against Indiana and Sevyn Banks blocked a punt this past weekend against Miami (Ohio).
The Buckeyes have a history of blocking punts, including in some big moments – for example, Olave’s blocked punt against Michigan in 2018 and Denzel Ward’s blocked punt against Penn State in 2017 – but their consistency in getting hands on kicks early this season has made it clear that Ohio State’s culture of making special teams a priority is unchanged.
One reason why the Buckeyes have made big plays on special teams is because even their best players on offense and defense are on the kick-blocking units. Young is arguably the best defensive player in college football and he’s expected to be a top-five overall pick in next year’s NFL draft, yet he’s still playing on the field goal block unit for Ohio State. Olave has emerged as the Buckeyes’ best receiver – and is the only player other than Young who has been named a champion for all four games this year – yet he’s still playing on the punt block team and as a gunner on the punt coverage team.
Special teams coordinator Matt Barnes said that’s just a part of the culture at Ohio State – a culture that had already been built at Ohio State by Meyer and his predecessors – and that players like Young come to him asking to play on special teams.
“Those guys want to be on it,” Barnes said Tuesday. “Chase Young is in my ear almost every day about what he wants to do on field goal block, and Tuf Borland’s in my ear every day about what he wants to do on punt and things like that. So I just think that speaks to the culture that’s been established here.”
Another reason for Ohio State’s early playmaking on special teams has been the leadership of Barnes, who is also the Buckeyes’ assistant secondary coach. Coaching special teams remains a collaborative effort at Ohio State, but Barnes is the leader of that phase of the game, and Ryan Day said earlier this month that one of Barnes’ goals was for the Buckeyes to block five kicks this year. They’ve already made significant progress toward that goal.
“He's the leader of the units, and he's somebody that wanted to come in and have a bunch of blocks this year, and he's off to a good start,” Day said Tuesday. “He's had good scheme.”
One change that’s been noticeable under Barnes, in contrast to past years, is that the Buckeyes have developed strategic lineups for their field goal block unit – varying by each game – instead of just keeping their defensive players on the field. Perhaps the most interesting wrinkle came in the Cincinnati game, when 6-foot-8, 360-pound offensive tackle Dawand Jones was on the field for the Bearcats’ only field goal attempt of the day, which helped free up Young to make the block.
Jones has only been in the field goal block lineup for that game, though, and that’s not only because the Buckeyes want to preserve his redshirt, but also because they are changing their lineup each game to match up most effectively with the opposing kicker and his protection scheme.
“It just depends on what you’re getting,” Barnes said. “There’s a little bit more to field goal block than what meets the eye. A lot of it is how much lift the kicker gets on the ball and if it’s a kicker that doesn’t get much lift on it, then you think you can get it with a longer guy. That’s where Dawand fit in the Cincinnati game plan. And a little bit’s based off the protection as well. So it’s sort of a week-to-week thing.”
“He's somebody that wanted to come in and have a bunch of blocks this year, and he's off to a good start.”– Ryan Day on Matt Barnes
With special teams lineups that include some of the team’s best offensive and defensive players and freshmen who could potentially not redshirt as a result, Ohio State is placing as much of a premium on the third phase of the game as it ever has. And Day himself has played a big part in that as well, attending every special teams meeting even when it means he has to miss meetings with the quarterbacks or offensive coaches.
“As the play caller and offensive coordinator, it's hard to do. You're missing some different times with the quarterback and with some of the other position meetings. But I just think it's so important that I'm in all those meetings and making sure I'm on top of it,” Day said. “Some of the reasons that the games have been won around here is because of special teams, and we want to keep that going.”