Ohio State wants Emeka Egbuka to continue to be aggressive fielding punts.
A former baseball player, Egbuka has often looked like an outfielder as Ohio State’s punt returner this season. The sophomore wide receiver hasn’t been timid about playing the ball in the air, often chasing it down even when it’s away from him or over his head.
That strategy backfired on Rutgers’ first punt against Ohio State last weekend. Egbuka’s attempt to make an over-the-shoulder catch of Adam Korsak’s punt went off his hands and Rutgers recovered the loose ball inside the 20-yard line – a turnover that led to a touchdown that gave the Scarlet Knights an early 7-0 lead in the game.
Despite that muff, Egbuka chased down Korsak’s very next punt to make another risky catch. And Ryan Day said this week he wants Egbuka to continue trying to catch every punt he can.
“He's been reliable for us, and he’ll continue to be reliable for us,” Day said. “I know he wishes he had that play back. I mean, nobody wanted to make the play more than Emeka Egbuka. Nobody cares more than him. So he'll take a look at it, try to figure out how maybe he could work on that a little better. We'll get some punts up there on windy days and keep working through it. But we have all the confidence in the world that he'll catch the ball when it's in the air.”
If Ohio State wanted to put Egbuka in less risky situations as a punt returner, it could have him line up further back or instruct him not to field punts that go over his head. One reason why the Buckeyes haven’t asked him to do either of those things is because of the bounciness of the new turf at Ohio Stadium, where they’ve played all of their first five games to this point. In the first two games of the season, Notre Dame had a 75-yard punt and Arkansas State had a 68-yard punt when Egbuka did allow the ball to hit the turf and roll.
“The tough thing about moving him back is on that field. It's not grass. When it bounces and rolls, it rolls forever. So it can cost you 30-40 yards,” Day said. “If you go too far back and it takes that big hop and rolls 30 yards, that's three first downs. So we try to find that spot in there, and sometimes you do better than others.”
Ohio State also had a turnover late in the Arkansas State game when a bouncing punt hit JK Johnson – who wasn’t even the returner on the play – in the leg, which is another reason the Buckeyes want to keep punts from hitting the ground.
“You especially don't want that thing kicking around and taking weird hops, it could take a weird bounce and hit one of your teammates, and then that ball is live,” Egbuka said. “So it's definitely a big emphasis to catch every ball and be aggressive to them. That's something that we really emphasize.”
Ultimately, Egbuka has to think quickly on his feet and make a split-second determination of whether he can catch the ball while it is in the air. How does he do that? He explained on Wednesday.
“You just try to get a good jump early, read it early,” Egbuka said. “If the nose of the ball is still in the air and it doesn't look like it's going to turn over, it's probably going to be shorter than you think. If the nose of the ball is about to turn over, it might get over your head. So just trying to gauge that, if it's a spiral or not, stuff like that.”
Fielding punts becomes even more difficult on a windy day like it was for the Rutgers game last Saturday, Egbuka said.
“There's little tells around the stadium like the flags and stuff like that. But Coach Day said yesterday the flags are blowing one way and then the stuff on the ground floor is blowing the other way, so you don't know which way the wind’s going,” Egbuka said. “So sometimes when they get up there, the ball is kind of dancing around a lot. So it's really big to have good eye discipline.
“It's not my goal to go out there and catch it over my shoulder. Just the wind kind of, you know, it's hard to gauge. So just focusing on coming out here every practice and getting better at that skill.”
Egbuka said the muff against Rutgers did bother him, though he tried to move on to the next play and get it out of his head. He also said catching punts is more complicated than catching kickoffs, a role he held for the Buckeyes last season but has given up in favor of Chip Trayanum this season – a decision he said was made now that he’s starting at wide receiver because of the toll kickoff returns can take on a returner’s body.
“It’s something that I was fond of last year and stuff like that, but it takes a toll on you,” Egbuka said. “Everyone's running full speed at you, and you're running full speed at them. So there are lots of big collisions on that play, but it's something that I do miss a little bit.”
That said, Egbuka is confident in his ability to field any punt and that Ohio State’s coaches will put him in the best position possible to make the catch.
“I'm just trusting the coaches to put me in the right spot, and kind of gauging where the wind’s at that day and stuff like that, I trust that they're gonna put me in a good position to make a play and secure the kick,” Egbuka said. “And we're going to continue to do that.”
“We have all the confidence in the world that he'll catch the ball when it's in the air.”– Ryan Day on Emeka Egbuka fielding punts
Where Egbuka lines up this week will likely be different than where he’s lined up in the Shoe as the Buckeyes hit the road for the first time this season to play Michigan State at Spartan Stadium, which has natural grass. A less bouncy field, coupled with the fact that MSU’s Bryce Baringer currently leads the FBS with a whopping 53.3 yards per punt this season, could be reasons for Egbuka to line up further back this week.
Ohio State won’t want Egbuka to be any less aggressive in the return game, however, as it will want to limit Baringer’s ability to flip the field as much as it can.
“We gotta do a good job of trying to be aggressive and going after some punts, and at the same time, when it’s time to return them, we gotta do a good job of holding them up,” Day said. “When a punter can really do a great job with punting the ball with hangtime and down the field, you gotta hold guys up in order to get a return, and we have good returners. So we’d like to get some yards back on that area so that we don’t feel like we’re going uphill all day.”