Parker Fleming knows Ohio State has made too many mistakes on special teams this season, and he knows it’s his responsibility to make sure that doesn’t continue to happen.
In his first media availability since the beginning of the season on Wednesday, Fleming took accountability for Ohio State’s shortcomings on special teams this year.
“There are a lot of plays that we wish we had back for one reason or another. And there's some we're really excited and happy with,” Fleming said. “Ultimately, the special teams, our job is to put our team in the best position to win. And there's some spots that we have not done that, clearly.”
Notable miscues for Ohio State on special teams this season have included an accidental fake punt that was stopped for a turnover on downs by Maryland when John Ferlmann snapped the ball to Cody Simon; a turnover on a punt return against Penn State when a ball hit Lorenzo Styles Jr.’s leg and was recovered by the Nittany Lions; and another unsuccessful fake punt against Rutgers in which Jesse Mirco ran the ball in a situation where he was not supposed to.
Fleming doesn’t feel as though those plays tell the entire story of Ohio State’s special teams performance this season, considering those are just three of the 272 special teams plays that the Buckeyes have run this year. But he understands why fans fixate on the mistakes.
“The one-off plays, we got to be better. We got to eliminate those,” Fleming said. “Our job is to change field position, create explosives when we have opportunities to, and we've done some of that. We have. When you look at the net field position in a bunch of games, we've won it. And people don't care about that, because the big things can't happen. And they're right. You can't put your team in some situations that we have, and I totally understand that.”
Notable unforced errors on special teams haven’t been a new phenomenon for Ohio State this year. Special teams mistakes played a part in the Buckeyes losing their two biggest games last season. A fake punt that almost certainly would have gone for a first down wasn’t executed last year against Michigan when Mason Arnold, Ohio State’s long snapper at the time, snapped the ball back to Mirco instead of Mitch Rossi. The Buckeyes only avoided a penalty for having too many men on the field on a similar fake punt against Georgia because Kirby Smart called a timeout. And of course, Ohio State’s season ended when Noah Ruggles missed a field goal that would have won the Buckeyes the game against Georgia.
The special teams mistakes that have continued to pop up this campaign have led to concerns that a special teams error could cost Ohio State a championship again this year. When that notion was presented to Fleming on Wednesday, he took a few moments to gather his thoughts before giving his response, in which he said that the concerns about his unit were “heard.”
“That's one of those things that it feels to me that when you look back at it and you cherry-pick some certain specific spots – which, they're valid – it's one of those deals where there's times when we're trying to make plays to help win the game, to push the envelope forward, and we got to do better,” Fleming said. “That's what it comes down to. I can't say that we're going to be perfect, I'm not going to be perfect. There are spots that like I said, we'll learn from and improve to the best that we can.
“Who knows, maybe I go inside and take that and think about it and digest it a little bit, because that's something we can't have happen. That's just the truth. We do everything we can to put our team in a position, our guys in a position, and they play really hard for this group inside that locker room. And no one's here trying to find ways to not execute, that's the truth. But that's something that we constantly look at and evaluate.”
“You can't put your team in some situations that we have, and I totally understand that.”– Parker Fleming on special teams mistakes
Fleming didn’t want to get into details about what happened on the miscommunication against Rutgers, saying “we're still playing games, and there's a lot going on with that.” But he said the miscommunication did fall on him as it is his responsibility to make sure special teams play calls are properly communicated to the players.
It’s debatable whether some of the other special teams mistakes should really be used as ammunition against Fleming or if they were simply a matter of players not executing what they were supposed to do. Nevertheless, Fleming said he accepts responsibility for every mistake made on special teams because it is his job to coach players not to make those mistakes.
“Anything that happens that's not good, that's on me to get fixed,” Fleming said. “The way we look at it around here is we try to put our players in the best position to go make plays, and then when they make plays, that's awesome. That's them making plays. When they don't, I didn't prepare them well enough to make the play.”
Ryan Day said last week that special teams miscues like the one that happened against Rutgers are “unacceptable.” But Day also said he still believes in Fleming, who is in his third year as Ohio State’s special teams coordinator, describing Fleming as “a great teacher and a great coach.”
“And I can just tell you that he works as hard as anybody in the building,” Day said. “But we're all being evaluated every single time we're out there. And it's everybody that's involved in special teams. It's not just the coordinator, although he's ultimately in charge and I'm ultimately in charge. So you can put it back on me. But clearly, everybody who's in charge of special teams, because there's a lot of coaches that are involved with that in the meetings, can all do a better job. And so, we'll just keep pushing to make it better. But we know what the expectation is.”
Although it hasn’t been a perfect year for Ohio State’s special teams, Fleming says he is proud of the way the Buckeyes have competed in that phase of the game this season, giving him confidence that special teams will help the team win in the season’s homestretch.
“We have a group that really believes in the mission. And they're playing really hard right now to go down and impact the game in a positive way. And it shows up, it does,” Fleming said. “These guys, they work really hard in meetings, they work really hard in practice, they work really hard in games to get things right and and any of the mistakes that they've made, I haven't prepared them well enough for. But the bulk of it, I'm really proud of the guys and how they're performing on a week-to-week basis.”