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Ohio State special teams, coordinator Matt Barnes are living up to preseason expectations

Now if we can just return a kickoff for a touchdown...

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

We’re officially right smack in the middle of the 2019 Ohio State football season and the Buckeyes have undoubtedly surpassed all of our expectations. Before the season began (which feels like just yesterday), I gave my prediction on how the special teams would pan out this year without their commander-in-chief, Urban Meyer, and under first year special teams coach Matt Barnes.

Here’s what I predicted:

Ohio State hasn’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2010 — Barnes is a big believer in “choosing his battles” when it comes to explosive plays. In other words, while he would like to rev up the return game, securing the football and good field position comes first and foremost.

Good field position? Check. Thank you, Drue Chrisman.

Explosive plays? CHECK!

In three consecutive games, Ohio State blocked two punts and one field goal, something a Buckeye team hasn’t done in at least 10 years.

Chase Young blocked a field goal against Cincinnati.

Chris Olave blocked a punt against Indiana.

And Sevyn Banks blocked a punt against Miami University.

The reason behind these explosive plays should be obvious: players like Young and Olave— who are arguably Ohio State’s best players on defense and offense, respectively— spend half of their time on special teams.

Barnes also plans on continuing Meyer’s tactic of using some of his best players on special teams — a job made easy with the amount of talent returning from last year — as well as using the special teams as a trial run for the younger guys hoping to prove themselves worthy of taking snaps on offense or defense.

And that he did. The field goal blocking unit is stacked. Joining Young are cornerbacks Jeff Okudah, Shaun Wade, Cameron Brown, and Damon Arnette, linebackers Malik Harrison, Pete Werner, and Tuf Borland, defensive tackles Jashon Cornell, Davon Hamilton, and Haskell Garrett, and safety Jordan Fuller. On punt and kickoff return, Olave is joined by receivers Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor, tight ends Jake Hausmann and Mitch Rossi, as well as Brown, Wade, and Harrison.

As for using special teams as a trial run for the youngsters...

Sophomore cornerback Sevyn Banks is in a similar situation as the LBs. You may have heard of him. The true sophomore returned a blocked punt last season for 33 yards to the house against That Team Up North. With Damon Arnette, Jeffrey Okudah, and Shaun Wade on the cornerback depth chart, Banks will likely spend another year primarily with special teams.

Another significant playmaker from last season who will continue to make an impact this season is sophomore safety Josh Proctor. With senior Jordan Fuller and junior Brendon White returning on defense, Proctor will likely be a core athlete on special teams on both kickoff coverage and kickoff/punt return.

Sure enough, Banks continues his nasty habit of punt-blocking and Proctor has been taking reps on both kickoff coverage and defense.

Unfortunately, blocked punts and field goals are a luxury. Barnes said he wants to rev up the return game....and they’re not exactly turning heads. While these units also feature some of the Buckeyes’ best, Ohio State is 37th in the nation in punt return average (11.3 yards) and 68th in kickoff returns (21.25).

Here’s what I predicted for our returners:

Senior running back Demario McCall, who averaged 19.5 on 10 kick returns last year, and redshirt senior receiver K.J. Hill who averaged 5.4 yards on 14 punt returns in 2018, are the most likely candidates. However, redshirt senior receiver C.J. Saunders, redshirt freshman receiver Jaelen Gill, and true freshman receiver Garrett Wilson have also been taking reps in practice.

McCall has definitely had his fair share of ball security issues — he lost his job as punt returner early last year because of it. However, he cleaned himself up toward the end of last season, solidified his job as kick returner, and has only been improving since.

Not surprisingly, McCall and Hill have been the primary returners this season. Wilson has also returned two punts for an average of 27 yards. McCall’s issue with ball security has unfortunately followed him into the 2019 season, which is likely why Hill took all three kick-off returns against Michigan State on Saturday. There’s definitely room for improvement for both returners considering we’ve seen them make explosive plays elsewhere.

Ohio State’s specialists, on the other hand, don’t have much to improve on. Punter Drue Chrisman has been doing what Chrisman does— pinning opponents deep inside the 20.

Last season, Chrisman finished with a 41.6-yard net average, which ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten. He also landed 29 punts inside of the 20 yard line, 15 of which were inside the 10. It’s safe to say that Ohio State’s punting should be nothing short of top notch in 2019.

While we haven’t seen much of him— 17 times to be exact— the junior punter has, indeed, been nothing short of top notch. Through six games, he holds a 46.8 yard average with a net of 43 yards and eight inside-20s.

Kicker Blake Haubeil has been consistent a part from two missed field goals—both from within 40 yards. Otherwise, he’s hit five of his seven field goal attempts, and all 39 of his extra points. We can let the missed field goals slide for now, but he’ll need to clean it up come Penn State and Wisconsin week.

As usual, Chrisman and Haubeil can thank their coverage units for making their lives a little easier. Both are ranked in the top 11 nationally.

This year’s special teams unit is stacked with elite, versatile young athletes who are all trying to work their way up the depth charts on offense and defense. Combine that with the amount of experience returning, and a brand new coordinator who is pushing for the perfect mix of good field position and explosive plays, and the Ohio State special teams should be something to write home about in 2019.

Check, check, check and check.

Barnes has done an outstanding job at maintaining— some might say surpassing— Ohio State’s special teams standards. I definitely wrote home about that Chase Young field goal block. My next bold prediction? K.J. Hill is returning a kickoff for a touchdown before the season ends. Dont @ me.