- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A strong leg is only a start.
Cameron Johnston's ability to launch the football down the field or place it in a precise location is invaluable, and Ohio State's late recruiting strike to even find him in Australia has been critical given the pressing need it had at punter.
But getting off a booming punt is merely the beginning of a successful play on special teams for the Buckeyes. And while Johnston, a freshman, has earned the attention he has received as a Ray Guy Award semifinalist, it's the collective work of the coverage unit around him which has made Ohio State so dangerous in the third phase as it executes its plan every week to win the battle for field position.
"That is much more a function of Devin Smith," special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs said. "It's the way they run down the field and cover and eliminate returns and kill the ball inside the 5-yard line and all that stuff. Not that Cam hasn’t had a good year, he has -- Cam has had a great year.
"But that punt team, that group of guys and the way they cover and the way they get down the field to eliminate the opportunity for the other team to return the ball is special. We are all the beneficiaries of that."
The Buckeyes, like any other team, would obviously prefer never to call on that unit in the first place. And for the most part, their high-powered offense has lightened the load for Johnston and the guys flying down the field since the Buckeyes have only punted 26 times.
But when Ohio State does get stopped and has to flip the field position around, its been among the most effective teams in the country at maximizing the yardage Johnston provides with his right foot. Through nine games, Johnston has averaged 40.9 yards per attempt, and thanks to Smith and his buddies, the Buckeyes are netting an even 40 yards on those punts while allowing a grand total of 3 return yards.
"When you watch Devin Smith, I’m telling you, put the clips of the film on," Coombs said. "You’re talking about your starting wide receiver getting down the field to cover a punt and keeping the other guy [trapped], making him fair catch again and again and again.
Johnston has been no slouch either, and he's certainly holding up his end of the bargain by generating enough hang-time to let Smith and the gunners beat double teams on the perimeter or by putting backspin on his kicks to allow them to down the ball in the red zone.
Few teams in the country have been better in those two areas than the Buckeyes, who have forced 15 fair catches and pinned opponents inside the 10-yard line on 27 percent of their punts. And there is plenty of credit to go around.
"Special teams, we're much better this year," coach Urban Meyer said. "If you look at our punt team, our punt team has had the same players on it every week. Last year, we didn't know the guys. Guys were getting hurt, guys weren't good enough.
"We're just performing at a much higher level."
From start to finish.
2dDan Murphy and Mitch Sherman
6dDan Murphy and Brian Bennett