Buckeyes Breakdown: Can Ohio State find success in all phases of special teams?
As the season continues to grow closer, Ohio State’s depth chart at each position is beginning to take shape. After losing 16 starters, including 12 during the NFL draft, this will be one of the program’s youngest teams in recent memory.
Join Landof10.com as we break down each of the position groups and what Buckeyes fans can expect from each one this fall.
Last up are the specialists, who are looking for a measure of redemption after an inconsistent 2015 season.
Assessing the roster
Lost: LS Bryce Haynes, K Jack Willoughby
Added: P Drue Chrisman
Returning: P Cameron Johnston, LS Liam McCullough, K Sean Nuernberger
Projected depth chart
- K: Sean Nuernberger
- LS: Liam McCullough
- P: Cameron Johnston, Drue Chrisman
The success of the specialists starts with senior punter Cameron Johnston, who has been a consistent contender for national awards since his freshman season in 2013.
The Aussie took a slight step back in distance last season, going from a 45.1-yard average in 2014 to a 43.9-yard average in 2015. In order for the Buckeyes to be at their field-flipping best, he’ll need to get that number back up to around 45 (or higher) this season.
Where Ohio State really excels in special teams, however, is on its kickoff coverage. The Buckeyes were the No. 3 team in the country last year in kickoff defense, surrendering only 16.3 yards per return. That figure comes in spite of the fact that the Buckeyes actually strive to avoid touchbacks, which gives teams more opportunities to break off a big return but also gives the OSU gunners a chance to make a big play that stops the opposing team inside its own 20-yard line.
“The goal for the group is to be the best in the country,” special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs said. “We talk about that every day. The way we evaluate that is how well we do in the field position differential, the difference between our offensive and defensive drive starts. The kids understand that’s an expectation. We have so much great technology right now that we are able to monitor so many different things about how they do their business. They’re going to be wearing chips in the shoulder pads and we’re going to know – if you don’t run 20 miles per hour you can’t be on the kickoff team. There’s just a lot of intense competition out there for those spots. I think our kids understand it, they enjoy it.”
Can Ohio State make a field goal? Last year the Buckeyes awarded the job to Willoughby, who struggled to show consistency. On came Nuernberger, OSU’s 2014 kicker, who then missed a 24-yarder against Illinois in his first attempt in relief of Willoughby.
The Buckeyes stuck with Nuernberger the rest of the way, but he didn’t attempt a field goal in either of the two games following Illinois. He did find some redemption in the Fiesta Bowl, however, by going 3 for 3 with makes of 35, 37 and 38 yards.
Still, it was telling that the Buckeyes didn’t convert a field goal attempt longer than 40 yards all season. Willoughby missed all three kicks he took from that range over the first six games, and Ohio State simply stopped attempting kicks of that length the rest of the season.
What to expect
Expect Johnston to rebound from a slightly disappointing 2015 campaign in which he was still one of the best punters in not only the Big Ten but the entire country. The Australia native has a gift for placing the ball inside the 10-yard line, and he will need to continue to have success in that area with the Ohio State defense replacing eight starters.
What Nuernberger will do is less predictable, but it stands to reason that he might be more confident this go round with no competition to worry about. The junior is coming off a perfect performance in the last game he played, and a return to his 2014 form would be a welcome sight for Buckeyes fans.
In the long snapping department, there will likely be no noticeable difference. McCullough was the No. 2-rated long snapper in the country in the class of 2015, and he got a year to develop under the excellent Haynes last fall.