The opening kickoff of No. 6 Ohio State’s game against No. 7 Penn State resulted in a returned touchdown. The second was purposely kicked short and fair caught at Penn State’s 27-yard line. The third was returned to Ohio State’s 23-yard line by a linebacker.
Penn State’s average starting field position off kickoffs against the Buckeyes was at the Nittany Lion 44-yard line. To put that in perspective, had Ohio State kicked the ball out of bounds every time, it would have been about 9 yards better than the average end result.
So considering it would have been better for Ohio State to simply kick it out of bounds, it is understandable that head coach Urban Meyer has described his kickoff coverage as “a joke” and “comical.”
That is why it should come as no surprise to learn that he wants to adjust the lineup are coming ahead of Saturday’s matchup against Iowa.
“Oh yeah, we’re going to make some changes on personnel,” Meyer said on Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches teleconference. “I just have to keep re-evaluating.”
Typically, Meyer has used special teams as a way to break in some of the younger players on the team who have not had as much playing time. Five freshmen, two sophomores and three current or former walk-on seniors comprised the group that allowed Penn State running back Saquon Barkley to return the touchdown.
Meyer said Monday he has turned to a lot of younger players and highly touted recruits on his roster in an effort to give them more playing time. He said those prospects often leave after their first year if they are dissatisfied with the playing time, and that by playing them on special teams he is giving them a chance to show they belong and make a case for early playing time.
With a personnel change coming, the kickoff coverage will likely turn to more veteran players on the team. Though it could cut into the early development time for some of the younger players on the unit, the Buckeyes need to do what they can to ensure they shore up the kickoff coverage. They have already allowed two returned touchdowns this season and cannot afford to allow special teams blunders to determine their future.
Sophomore wide receiver Austin Mack said he has been on kickoff coverage before and expects to return to that role later this season, given the current struggles of those currently out there.
“More reliable people. People that’s going to get the job done,” Mack said Tuesday. “Because we can’t have what we had last game. So that’s something that we have to be serious about and make sure that we get done.”
He is not the only leader on the team who hopes to step up and contribute in coverage. Redshirt senior linebacker Chris Worley said he hasn’t played special teams since linebackers coach Bill Davis joined Ohio State’s staff in December 2016, but he would like to return to assist. He said Davis welcomes the idea of Worley potentially being used on kickoff coverage, even though when he was hired, he wanted to keep his starting middle linebacker on defense.
And if Meyer has his way, Worley just might end up back on the unit, even if it means cutting into the playing time of those younger players.
“During the special teams meeting today, [Meyer] made it clear that [there is] just going to have to be some guys that play a lot of football around here on offense and defense that may have to go into the game on special teams,” Worley said. “We have great young players. They have to play great, and we’ll see how that unfolds.”
Worley said he might not be the only linebacker to contribute to the unit. Worley listed unior Jerome Baker and redshirt junior Dante Booker as two linebackers who could see more time on special teams.
Improving the players tasked with stopping the return could be Meyer’s final chance at fixing the unit. Meyer said the team has attempted to adjust schemes and kick the ball in different directions. However, he said the team is limited in the adjustments it can make given the inability of his kickers to reach the end zone with their kicks.
“I’d kick it out of the end zone every time,” Meyer said Monday. “We’re the only team in America that can’t kick it out of the end zone, even with the wind at our back.”
How accurate that assessment might be — freshman kicker Blake Haubeil has six touchbacks in seven games this season — is all a moot point if Meyer is determined to pin opponents deep near their own end zone. But if Ohio State continues to struggle to kick the ball into coverage or can’t effectively cover the returns, its chances of achieving its end goal of a national championship will be greatly diminished.