Friday, March 1, 2013
Spring forward: KR/PR breakdown
By Austin Ward
Corey "Philly" Brown returned punts for touchdowns against Nebraska (above) and Wisconsin in 2012.
With national signing day in the books, the next big date on the Ohio State calendar as it continues working toward an encore for an undefeated season in 2013 is spring practice. Before those workouts begin, BuckeyeNation will take a look at each position to see where the roster is at -- and where it's going.
KICKOFF RETURN/PUNT RETURN
Who's back: The jokes about Philly Brown not being able to make anybody miss at wide receiver had already started subsiding, but he put them to bed for good on special teams. The rising senior put two exclamation points on a breakout individual season with a pair of punt returns for touchdowns, including a pivotal one in the overtime thriller on the road against Wisconsin that helped save the undefeated campaign. The kickoff return gig wasn't quite as stable and the unit overall was never able to really provide the type of spark coach Urban Meyer wants in that phase of the game. But before a freshman class loaded with speed arrives in the fall, he's got a handful of guys with experience to look at this spring -- starting with running backs Rod Smith and Bri'onte Dunn, wide receiver Devin Smith and perhaps cornerback Bradley Roby.
New faces: The Buckeyes have two new additions already on campus at a skill position, though Eli Apple and Cam Burrows will likely be focusing more on learning the schemes and techniques at cornerback than trying to provide competition at the return slots. But when training camp rolls around, though, Meyer might be looking closely at burners such as Dontre Wilson, Jalin Marshall, James Clark, Corey Smith or touted tailback Ezekiel Elliott to help carry the load.
Projected spring depth chart: Brown should head into camp with the edge on the punt-return unit, with fellow wideout Devin Smith in the second slot. Kickoff return could easily be staging a wide-open competition, though Rod Smith and Dunn ended last season as the top two options and figure to start camp there as well.
Numbers game: The Buckeyes finished the season ranked just No. 84 in the country in average kickoff return yardage, managing less than 20 yards per attempt and never posting one longer than Rod Smith's 36-yarder. The junior running back was also the most consistent threat among the handful of returners the Buckeyes tried, leading the team with an average of 23.3 yards on his 13 attempts.
One to watch: The influx of speed at the skill positions in the fall should give Meyer even more options to play with, but he could be faced with the same decision then that he does now. Is it worth exposing Roby to a few more hits to take advantage of his speed? The junior cornerback has a gear that few other athletes can match and it's not hard to imagine him putting that speed to good use with the ball in his hands on special teams. But he's also integral on defense with his lockdown coverage and disruptive ability in the secondary, which will give the Buckeyes something to ponder as they try to find some explosiveness in the return game.
He said it: "We maybe didn't have the home-run hitter, explosive, open-space player on offense, but you know what? Some guys really grew up and did a good job for us. Philly Brown did a nice job." -- Meyer on signing day