Urban Meyer led the special teams for his entire tenure at Ohio State, leaving a big fat question mark for the position group after his departure. A question that was quickly answered by the hire of Ohio State’s new special teams coordinator and assistant secondary coach, Matt Barnes.
In order to break down the 2019 special teams, one must first figure out how they’ll operate under a new leader.
So, what do we know about Barnes? During his time at Maryland, where he served as special teams coordinator in 2018, the Terrapins ranked 18th nationally and held a 23.9 yard average on kickoff returns, which ranked third in the Big Ten. Two of his players – Ty Johnson and Taivon Jacobs – returned kicks 97 and 98 yards, respectively, for touchdowns. Maryland also blocked two punts and was 39th nationally in net punting (38.8 yards).
While 97 yard kickoffs and blocked punts sound shiny and new for the Ohio State special teams — 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.
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.
KICKOFF AND PUNT RETURN
While it’s still undecided on who will be returning kickoffs and punts for the Buckeyes this year, Barnes has hinted at a few names. 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.
While his numbers stand out, 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.
On paper, all of these names have the ability and athleticism to return it to the house. Ultimately, however, Barnes has made it clear that the guy whom he can rely on to be consistent and accountable will win the job.
KICKOFF AND PUNT COVERAGE
Luckily for the special teams, there’s a whole lotta depth at linebacker this season, meaning guys like freshmen Cade Stover and Craig Young, and sophomores Dallas Gant, K’Vaughan Pope, and Teradja Mitchell will be spending most of their time on special teams, competing for their chance to move their way up the loaded depth chart.
While the three sophomores have already seen substantial playing time on special teams, Stover is the one who co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison says that he “can’t wait” to see play. The hard-hitting, fast, 6-foot-4, 185-pound athlete was among the first to get his black stripe removed during camp, and will be a strong addition to kickoff coverage.
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.
All three specialists are returning from last year, starting with redshirt junior punter Drue Chrisman, who was awarded All-Big Ten second-team honors in 2018. The Cincinnati native has been nothing but consistent during his time as a Buckeye, with a 43.7-yard career average, fifth best in school history. 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.
Back for his third year as a starter is redshirt senior long snapper, Liam McCullough. No news is good news when it comes to the long snapper, and there’s not much to report on McCullough other than all 431 snaps of his career have been flawless, and he has a great t-shirt game.
Under Myer, Buckeye fans were used to seeing rollout punts from a spread-punt formation. Barnes did the same at Maryland with Australian punter Wade Lees. However, the NFL may come knocking soon for Chrisman and McCullough, and they’ll definitely benefit from more pro-style experience. The talent is there, so it won’t be surprising if Barnes allows Chrisman to hit spirals from the pocket with McCullough blocking.
Also returning is junior kicker Blake Haubeil. He came in for an injured Sean Nuernberger midway through last season, landed all 37 of his extra point attempts and finished 10-for-13 on field goal attempts in his first extended FG action for the Buckeyes. His longest field goal was 47 yards against Minnesota. Haubeil has been responsible for kickoffs for the past two seasons, with 45 touchbacks and seven out of bounds.
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.