Special teams coordinator hasn’t been a position at Ohio State since 2011, at least not one that’s separate from that of head coach. That will change this year.
With the departure of former head coach Urban Meyer, who presided over special teams, the staff role was once again vacated. New head coach Ryan Day selected former Maryland assistant Matt Barnes for the spot, and now the Buckeyes’ six special teams units will be under new management –– at least in part.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Barnes said. “We’ve been excellent here, but we want to reach a new level, if we can. Obviously the bar’s been set very high.”
Ohio State opponents began with the second-worst starting field position throughout 2018, averaging a start of their own 26.1-yard-line. The Buckeyes themselves averaged a start at their own 33.5.
That’s a testament to the high bar Barnes referenced.
Experience will play a role in maintaining that standard in 2019. Ohio State returns three starting cogs in its special teams machine, led by redshirt junior punter Drue Chrisman, a second-team All-Big Ten performer this past season.
In a rare feat for a punter, Chrisman was named Player of the Game against Michigan State in 2018. Five consecutive punts off his foot were downed inside the 10 during one stint in East Lansing, Michigan. He’s put in work this offseason to improve further.
“There’s a guy in Alabama. I’ll travel to him for a week, go do different camps, pick up little things here and there,” Chrisman said. “My main thing is I’ve had success with what I’m doing right now, maybe a couple little tweaks or whatever, but I’m not gonna change anything drastic.”
Redshirt senior long snapper Liam McCullough is back for a third year starting. Junior kicker Blake Haubeil will no longer battle with Sean Neurnberger for playing time, after handling kickoffs and knocking home all 37 of his extra point attempts in 2018. He finished 10-for-13 on field goal attempts.
A mixture of other positional players will fill out the various special teams units; the only position of significance that remains undecided is punt returner.
Four names took reps at the position during practice Friday: redshirt senior receiver K.J. Hill, senior running back Demario McCall, redshirt senior receiver C.J. Saunders and redshirt freshman receiver Jaelen Gill.
Hill is the most experienced with 41 career returns, averaging 5.4 yards. The Buckeyes haven’t returned a non-blocked punt for a touchdown since 2014.
“At the end of the day, you want to make sure that you possess the ball at the end of every punt,” Barnes said. “You have a pool of guys that you work consistently, and you just have to make some decisions.”
There also hasn’t been a kick return touchdown for Ohio State since 2010.
Regardless, the Buckeyes hope to keep their field position edge moving into 2019. With the experience and blueprint they return, it’s a matter of small adjustments as August rolls on.
“Sort of our slogan for this camp is, ‘Let’s make the best better,’” Barnes said. “Are we elite? Here we are. We’ve arrived. Now what’s your approach from there?”