Ohio State’s most quietly important position battle might be the one happening on special teams.
The kicker competition hasn’t gotten nearly the attention as Ohio State’s more prominent position battles at quarterback, along the offensive line and in the secondary, but Buckeye fans learned all too well about the importance of the kicking game in last year’s Peach Bowl. And even though Noah Ruggles missed his final kick in that game, he leaves big shoes to fill as the only kicker in Ohio State history (minimum 20 attempts) to make more than 90 percent of his field goal attempts in his Buckeye career.
Going into the summer, it’s not yet clear who will succeed Ruggles. Jayden Fielding and Parker Lewis are both competing to be Ohio State’s new kicker, but neither of them has attempted a field goal or extra point for the Buckeyes in a game. That said, Fielding handled all of Ohio State’s kickoffs in 2022 while Lewis was USC’s kicker in 2020 and 2021 before transferring to Ohio State in 2022.
Ohio State special teams coordinator Parker Fleming liked what he saw from both of them this spring, giving him confidence that the Buckeyes will have a kicker they can rely on this fall.
“I feel like we're in a good place,” Fleming said Tuesday. “We had three guys get a lot of reps in spring. You guys saw Jake (Seibert)'s no longer here. So we really got two guys that both had great springs, Jayden and Parker. Jayden kicked off for us last year. You guys have seen Parker's got experience other places. We're excited about the fall, a lot of talent. Now it's time to figure out what happens down the line.”
Lewis was recruited to Ohio State a year ago with an expectation he would succeed Ruggles after making 26 of his 35 field goal attempts at USC. But while there was also an expectation that Lewis would contribute immediately as Ohio State’s kickoff specialist in 2022, Fielding ended up locking down that role as a walk-on freshman when Lewis was unable to play in the first four games of the season due to an eligibility issue stemming from his transfer.
Both of them have stronger legs than Ruggles, which could give the Buckeyes a better chance if they need a long field goal to win a game this year. What remains to be determined is whether either one of them can be as reliable as Ruggles was on kicks inside 50 yards, where he missed just one field goal in two years at Ohio State. But Fleming is glad that both of them have at least some experience performing under the bright lights on Saturdays.
“It’s hard to know until they've done it in a game,” Fleming said. “The two guys that are really in a battle, I'd say, one’s kicked at another place and one’s kicked off here. They’ve both got game experience, but in different ways.”
Fleming says the competition will ultimately be determined by who is the more consistent performer in practice. He says Ohio State will look to create pressure situations for the kickers during preseason camp to see how both Lewis and Fielding respond.
“It's a consistency thing. You want to have a guy that you know what you're gonna get. That's really what it comes down to. He's got to make kicks, he’s gotta be dependable,” Fleming said. “We'll have to find some moments and some spots and some opportunities to separate. Because that's kind of what you're looking for.”
By charting every kick they attempt in practice, Fleming will be able to make an objective decision about who Ohio State’s field-goal kicker should be this year. But the process isn’t quite as simple as just looking at the percentage of kicks each of them makes.
“It’s very nuanced, but also the data tells you a lot,” Fleming said. “Selecting an offensive lineman versus another guy sometimes, it's not statistically driven. Same thing with a receiver sometimes, what if they didn't throw him the ball? I don’t know how many catches he had, it was not his choice. But there is some statistical to it. There's also some, the way the ball comes off his foot, you see it. And you have to take into account, we have this crazy chart that's got the wind direction, the wind speeds, the hold, the laces, who was the snapper, all those things factor in. But at the end of the day, it's the guy that's gonna make the kick.”
Lewis is competing with Fielding for the kickoff job in addition to the field goal job, so it’s still to be determined whether the same kicker will handle both field goals and kickoffs or whether they will split those duties. While Fleming believes there can be a benefit to splitting those responsibilities up, he says that decision will ultimately be made based on who performs better in each area. He also said it’s possible that both of them could kick some field goals or that both of them could handle some kickoffs.
“I think it depends on the guys. Some people really want to do both. Some people want to do one. I think there's an ability for guys earning kicks on both. Earn some kickoffs, earn some field goals based on kind of how you're practicing,” Fleming said. “We kick off a lot here traditionally; you score a lot of points, you kick off a lot. So a lot of times you don't, down the stretch, you don't want your leg to have too many kicks. And then sometimes there's that balance of kicking off helps you. So it kind of depends on the guys and who's better at what.”
With a returning punter in Jesse Mirco and a transfer addition who’s seemingly already seized the long-snapping job in John Ferlmann, kicker is the biggest personnel question Fleming must answer this preseason. But he says both Fielding and Lewis are doing the things they need to do both on and off the field to give themselves a chance to fill that role effectively for Ohio State.
“They're both great guys. They're detailed. They take their craft seriously,” Fielding said. “Jayden’s a younger guy who came in, he was skinny. If you look at Jayden, like last year, he was the guy walking around, everyone was like ‘This guy?’ And you see him kick and he kicked off well for us last year, you’d say, ‘Whoa, what is that?’ And you look at Parker and Parker's a big jacked-up dude and you're like, ‘These two play the same position?’ Jayden’s put on some weight, he looks good. They're both working really hard in the weight room. But they're smart.
“I like these two guys. We’ll kind of see how the fall goes. I'm excited.”