Friday, January 10, 2014
OSU offseason to-do list: Special teams
By Austin Ward
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Another 12-win season is in the books, though the second one under Urban Meyer did come with a pair of losses at the end that took a bit of the shine off the record for Ohio State. As the Buckeyes turn the page to Year 3 under Meyer, they'll certainly be looking to top that victory total, clinch a spot in the first edition of the College Football Playoff and again compete for a national title. To do so, all three phases will have issues to address, and the final checklist hits on the special teams.
Freshman Dontre Wilson returned 21 kickoffs for 523 yards this season.
Find some explosion in the return game: Considering the influx of speed on the kickoff return unit and the presence of a veteran to field punts, Ohio State has to be disappointed in the lack of spark it had when the ball was kicked its way. Even before the second-half lead in the Discover Orange Bowl started to slip away thanks to a punt that Philly Brown muffed for a costly turnover, the Buckeyes were merely average in that phase ranking No. 60 in the country and weren't much better with Dontre Wilson pacing a kickoff unit that finished No. 42 in the nation. Meyer undoubtedly has much higher expectations for his returners and has long placed an emphasis on creating game-changing plays in that phase of the game, something he'll only harp on more heading into spring practice. Not only is Brown gone, but every player who fielded more than one punt last season has departed along with him, so there will be open auditions for at least one role when practice resumes for the Buckeyes.
Replace the kicker: Meyer at times seems allergic to kicking field goals, but he could at least feel somewhat comfortable when he did settle for a 3-point try with veteran Drew Basil around and hitting 90 percent of his attempts. But that security blanket is gone now, and while that might make Meyer even less inclined to kick a field goal moving forward, in the short term he'll have his attention focused on the candidates to fill the void. Walk-on Kyle Clinton will have a crack at the job, though his current experience is limited to 3 extra points and a handful of kickoffs in his career. Incoming freshman Sean Nuernberger, the No. 9 player in the country at the position, could wind up being the solution for Ohio State.
Dial up the FreakShow: The loss of Bradley Roby at cornerback is obviously pressing, but not having him around to lead the FreakShow punt-block unit could be just as significant given how dramatic an impact he had during his career attacking the football on special teams. Few things in a game mean more to Meyer than coming up with a momentum-swinging block in the kicking game, and Roby had the instincts and athleticism to do it perhaps as well or better than anybody the coach has ever had at his disposal. Doran Grant has shown a flash of that ability, but the Buckeyes will be looking hard at the young talent it has been stacking up in the secondary to find another guy or two capable of blazing deep into the backfield, getting a hand on the football and then potentially turning a block directly into points the way Roby did with the program.