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Column: Are special teams all that special under Ryan Day?

They’re fine, I guess. 

Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One Venture X - Ohio State v Utah Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

In 2021, the on-field issues for the Ohio State football team were quite apparent, and nearly all anchored on the defensive side of the ball. Losses to Michigan and Oregon served to emphasize those deficiencies, even as the Ohio State offense appeared to be firing on all cylinders for most of the season.

However, the third unit on-field flew largely under the radar for much of 2021. There were some flashes of greatness, but largely, we saw very little of special teams, and those units did not finish the season tops (or near the top) in any statistical category. That result begs the question: Have special teams taken a quiet downturn under Ryan Day’s tenure?

Special teams were always a special snowflake under Urban Meyer’s regime, with the head coach taking particular interest in these units. Even under Jim Tressel, special teams play was elevated. By way of example, we’ll never forget the likes of Mike Nugent and his game winning kicks.

At first glance, special teams would seem to be getting by just fine. Noah Ruggles, Ohio State’s transfer kicker from North Carolina, was 20-of-21 on field goals last season, and 84-of-84 on extra point attempts. That statline happens to be the best in the Big Ten, and leaves very little to be alarmed about. Moreover, that very statline demonstrates the efficiency of the Ohio State offense, which scored four times more touchdowns than field goals, and how little Ruggles — or any special teams player — would be needed to single handedly win the game. *Except for that time at the end of the Rose Bowl.

On that note, Ohio State is admittedly spoiled when it comes to the Buckeyes’ need for special teams. Ryan Day has had such powerful offenses for much of his tenure that the beneficial swing outstanding special teams can bring is less relevant. In other words, when Ohio State is beating opponents by several touchdowns, a botched extra point play simply doesn’t alter the outcome of the game.

(Again, though, there were no botched extra point attempts.)

By comparison, Michigan, which did not have as explosive an offense last season, certainly was aided by elite special teams to get them to the College Football Playoff. Even Iowa, which had about as anemic an offense as we can imagine, relied on special teams, which can be credited with getting them a spot in the Big Ten Championship.

On the flip side for Ohio State, Jesse Mirco, the freshman punter from Australia, punted just 31 times all season — the fewest attempts of any team in the Big Ten. He punted four times apiece against Michigan and Nebraska and thrice against Oregon. Once again, an efficient offense makes the need for outstanding punting less relevant, but Mirco and the punting unit finished the season ninth in the conference in net punting with 40.9 yards per attempt. Given the deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball, better punting might have put the defense in a better spot, though 17 of Mirco’s 31 punts were downed inside the 20-yard line.

One obvious area of deficiency is special teams touchdowns, of which there were none last season. Once again, though, it’s not as though the Buckeyes were thirsting for scores for much of the season, and, despite the aforementioned challenges on defense, Ohio State did lead the nation with six defensive touchdowns, which added enough glamor to keep us fans satiated.

Of course, special teams have struggled to find the endzone dating back further than Day’s tenure. Even with all his hype around special teams, Meyer wasn’t exactly prolific in this area. The last punt return for a touchdown came in 2014, while the last kickoff return for a score was all the way back in 2010.

In terms of the current regime, Parker Fleming has been special teams coach at Ohio State since 2021. While the units by no means performed poorly last season, the Buckeyes were not top-10 in any statistical category related to special teams. The closest they came was the individual performance of electric return man Emeka Egbuka, who was 12th nationally in kickoff returns, averaging 29 yards per return, and who just might end the return touchdown drought for the Buckeyes in 2022.

Fleming, who was a graduate assistant at Ohio State previously, returned to Columbus in 2018, when Ohio State’s special teams were approaching the top of nearly every statistical category. Special teams defense in particular was outstanding, with top-10 rankings in kickoff and punt return defense, as well as blocked punts.

Special teams have always been somewhat nebulous in their evaluation. There are some aspects that are binary: Did the kicker make the kicks or not? Did the punter have any punts blocked? Other components, including some mentioned above, can be measured: What is a kicker’s field goal or extra point success rate? Where does a return man rank in terms of yardage per return?

But then there are components that are a lot more challenging to evaluate — namely, player development. Special teams have always played a critical role in player development, something which is perhaps best encapsulated during the NFL preseason. Meyer certainly leveraged special teams to influence his depth chart. While Day has the advantage, like Meyer, of recruiting top classes year in and year out, there is something to be said for leveraging special teams as a proving ground — and perhaps some of the challenges we saw on defense stem from that reduced emphasis.

However, even if they are not as elite as they were a few short years ago, special teams have not lost games for Ohio State under Ryan Day. In 2021 (or 2020, or 2019), there were no heartbreaking losses following botched kicks or blocked punts. There is very little to be alarmed about, especially given sustained offensive success and presumed improvement on defense. However, it is interesting to see what a shift away from special teams as the critical third unit it was under Meyer means for the program.

In many ways, it cuts down on the drama — which is exactly what we need right now anyway.