COLUMBUS, Ohio — As Ohio State’s offensive linemen debated workloads and coaches inquired about J.T. Barrett’s whereabouts, Sean Nuernberger dutifully filled his wheelbarrow and made the trek to Buckeye Grove.
At this point, the Ohio State kicker knows the drill.
While the Buckeyes’ annual spring game is a mere exhibition, its consequences for the Ohio State roster are real. Every spring, the losing team of the Buckeyes’ spring game is tasked with landscaping Buckeye Grove.
Specialists, however, have no rooting interest. As members of both the Scarlet and Gray squads, they know they’ll be mulching, no matter what.
“This is my fourth time now,” Nuernberger said standing just outside Buckeye Grove last month. “Specialists lose no matter what.”
For the fourth-year junior, a morning’s worth of wheelbarrow pushing followed a strong showing in the spring game just a few days earlier. Connecting two of his three field goal attempts — makes of 42 and 33 yards — Nuernberger looked like a player the Buckeyes could count on as their starting kicker.
And while overlooked, it was a performance that could mean a lot for Ohio State in 2017.
After serving as the Buckeyes’ No. 1 kicker throughout their run to the 2015 College Football Playoff championship, Nuernberger lost his starting job to walk-on Jack Willoughy. After regaining the gig and making three of four kicks by the end of his sophomore season, the Buckner, Ky., native suffered a groin and hip-flexor strain that cost him the 2016 season.
His replacement, Tyler Durbin, started off strong but struggled down the stretch, missing four of his five attempts in the Buckeyes’ final two games. Fortunately for Ohio State, Nuernberger insists he’s back at full strength.
“I definitely feel like I’m on my way,” he said. “Injury-wise, I feel 100 percent. There’s no pain, there’s nothing holding me back. I really feel like I’m on track.”
That could be big for the Buckeyes, who nearly lost last year’s No. 2 vs. No. 3 contest against Michigan due in large part to Durbin’s miscues. At the moment, the only alternative that exists on the Ohio State roster is incoming freshman Blake Haubeil. And while talented, it likely would be best for both the 3-star prospect Haubeil to take a redshirt season in the coming year.
For Haubeil to stay on the sidelines, Nuernberger is going to need to return to his 2014 form. That season, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound kicker connected on 13 of his 15 attempts, including a long of 49 yards. Although his accuracy wasn’t always reliable, his booming leg provided plenty of value, as evidenced by his four makes of more than 40 yards.
Three months remain until the start of the season, but so far, it’s been so good for Nuernberger’s comeback. Up next is a competition with Haubeil where he’ll attempt to officially regain his starting spot, but if the spring game is any indication, Nuernberger enters the summer in the pole position in the Buckeyes’ kicking battle.
“It was awesome — it’s been a while. The last time I ever kicked in front of any sort of crowd was last spring game,” Nuernberger said. “Getting to kick with a little bit of pressure, it felt great.”
If all goes according to plan, it’s a feeling Nuernberger will experience plenty in 2017.