Special teams are Urban Meyer’s pride and joy.
For the first nine games of the season, Ohio State’s kicking game gave him plenty of reason to be proud and joyful.
Drew Basil was perfect on his field-goal and extra–point attempts. Only two of freshman Cameron Johnston’s 26 punts had been returned, and that was for a grand total of 3 yards.
Bradley Roby and Doran Grant each blocked a punt. The kick-return units hadn’t produced a touchdown, but that seemed only a matter of time given the explosiveness of Corey “Philly” Brown, Dontre Wilson and Jordan Hall.
But bit by bit, injuries have taken a toll on Ohio State’s special-teams units. The cracks finally showed against Illinois on Saturday. The Buckeyes allowed V’Angelo Bentley to return a punt 67 yards for a touchdown. They committed three penalties in the return game. Basil missed a field-goal attempt and an extra-point attempt.
Shoring up special teams is a big concern for Saturday’s game against Indiana.
Although Ohio State uses more starters on special teams than most teams, the core of those units still comes from backups. And the ranks of the backups have been decimated.
“I want to say nine players are out for the season, scholarship players,” Meyer said. “Seven or eight of them are guys we were all counting on. Adam Griffin, Jamie Wood, Blake Thomas, Jayme Thompson, James Clark, Christian Bryant, Mike Hill, (Antonio) Underwood and (Donovan) Munger.”
Many others have missed significant time, including Hall. The absence of linebackers Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry last week thinned the units beyond a critical mass. Perry is expected back this week.
A player such as freshman linebacker Mike Mitchell might be able to help, but he hasn’t played this year. Ohio State doesn’t begin a season intending to redshirt anyone, but at this point, common sense prevails. To burn a year of eligibility for a short-term special-teams fix would not be wise.
So Buckeyes coaches have had to go deep down the depth chart for help.
“We traveled with, I want to say, four walk-ons that had never played (to Illinois) because if something happens, they’re going in the game,” Meyer said. “That occupies a lot of our time right now.”
Running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Warren Ball have been pressed into action on coverage units. It almost became a running joke on Monday that whenever Meyer was asked a question he wanted to dodge — say, about the Buckeyes’ postseason scenario — he would talk about having to get Ball up to speed in kick coverage.
“Poor Warren,” Meyer finally said.
Ball had the best, but not the only, chance to tackle Bentley on the punt return.
“We’re taking offensive players and putting them on coverage units,” Meyer said. “It’s common to do that for one or two (players), but not five.”
Players understand that the path to earning snaps on offense or defense is through special teams. They know how much Meyer values the kicking game.
“Punt and kickoff are the two that he’s in charge of,” senior C.J. Barnett said. “He takes great pride in that. He says that’s more important than any offensive or defensive play.”
Some starters might look at having to cover punts and kickoffs as a necessary evil. That’s not the case with this team.
“To be a part of those special teams is an honor and a privilege,” Barnett said. “Offense and defense is important, but being on punt and kickoffs is most important.”
That’s what made Saturday’s shaky performance, particularly the punt return touchdown, so devastating.
“The worst feeling in the world,” Barnett said.
Sounding positively Tresselian, he added, “The punt is the most important play. We pride ourselves on being the best punt team in the nation.”
Special teams weren’t a complete disaster against Illinois. Johnston did punt well, averaging 57 yards. Hall had a 47-yard kickoff return after Bentley’s touchdown.
But for a team that had solid special-teams play all season, it was a sobering performance.
“We let coach Meyer down,” Barnett said. “We’re going to get back out there and work on our fundamentals and be better.”