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Bold Predictions: Ohio State will score on both a kickoff and punt return in 2023

The Buckeyes have not returned a kick of any kind for a touchdown since 2014. But you heard it here first, the drought will end during this upcoming ‘23 season.

Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about making predictions that may or may not be reasonable, in fact, some might say they are bold. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”Bold Predictions” articles here.

On Nov. 22, 2014, Ohio State’s Jalin Marshall gave a truly legendary performance in The Shoe. In less than 15 minutes of game time, he scored four touchdowns against the Indiana Hoosiers and helped bring his team back from a six-point deficit.

OSU desperately needed a spark the week before their matchup with TTUN, and Marshall, a freshman who had recently been criticized for fumbling, was willing and able to provide. The Buckeyes also needed a win to keep their national title hopes alive.

They got one, and the rest is obviously history.

The first of Marshall’s four TDs that day was an electric 54-yard punt return. And surprisingly, his return TD turned out – or has turned out – to be the last of its kind (kickoff or punt) since that sunny season-saving day. So it has been almost nine years since Ohio State last found the endzone on a return! How does this happen!?

I know the Parker Fleming haters are probably yelling at me right now, telling me exactly how, but OSU’s return ‘issues’ clearly go back much further than 2018. And if you think nine years is a long time, wait until I remind you how long it has been since the Buckeyes last returned a kickoff for a TD.

How does 13 years sound? Crazy, I know, but I was young and dumb the last time it happened. Now I am only one of those things. That kickoff return came against TTUN in 2010, when Jordan Hall scampered 85 yards for a score, also doing so in The Shoe.

There have been several close calls since 2014, on both kickoff and punt returns, however, Ohio State continues to experience a dreadful drought. And just to give a little context here, there were 52 such return TDs in all of FBS last year. If 52 is right around the average, then we are talking about 400+ return TDs since the end of the 2014 season... Of which OSU has zero!

But we can safely assume that the return TD number is actually much, much higher, because only recently has the number of kickoff returns (in particular) been drastically reduced by rule changes.

Buckeyes struggling to make big plays in the return game can be especially frustrating for those of us who watched and/or remember Ted Ginn Jr. One of the many (and early) players from Cleveland Glenville, Ginn Jr. amassed eight total return TDs during his three seasons in Columbus. That is one for every completed season since Marshall’s punt return against Indiana. Yikes.

But I believe that Ohio State’s return drought will end in 2023. So this is where I make a bold proclamation... Wait, that doesn’t sound right.

How about a bold prediction? Yep, that sounds much better. In honor of Bold Predictions week here at LGHL, I predict that OSU will score on both a kickoff return and a punt return during the 2023 season.

I am clearly setting myself up to look foolish on this one, seeing as though the Buckeyes have not scored via kickoff AND punt return (during the same season) since Ginn Jr. single-handedly did so in 2006. But the powers that be here at LGHL asked for bold, and I am nothing if not a company man.

I also happen to believe in the talent on this current Ohio State roster. So much so that I feel there are too many potential stars and not nearly enough spots on the field. And that is precisely why I am predicting multiple TD returns. Allow me to explain:

Ryan Day and his assistant coaches have typically (but not always) looked for creative ways to get their ‘backups’ on the field. Whether fans love the frequency with which they do so is a completely different story; one we do not have time for today. However, like most of their coaching peers, Day and Co. have been particularly stubborn when it comes to getting players involved in the return game.

Besides The GOAT Demario McCall, OSU has relied almost exclusively on dependable, sure-handed, experienced wide receivers: Garrett Wilson, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Emeka Egbuka, Xavier Johnson. And I have no major complaints, those guys are/were solid.

But I think that Day and his staff have left plenty of ‘meat on the bone’ by not branching out or going outside their comfort zone. They clearly love having a reliable WR back to field kicks, and I get that. But why not experiment? In a real game? They would not be taking a great risk against the likes of Indiana and/or Western Kentucky, so live a little. Otherwise, those hidden gems will remain hidden. And if Ohio State coaches continue to trust only a select few, then they might continue to lose players such as Kaleb Brown.

Now, when it comes to special teams and the return game, I am not suggesting that coaches throw all caution to the wind and roll out nothing but true freshman. BUT I am suggesting – nay, pleading – for OSU coaches to look further down the depth chart for help in the team’s return game. And I predict that they will in 2023, because their favorite, trusted unit is stacked beyond belief! Coaches can have their cake and eat it too, which is again what I am predicting.

It seems likely that Jayden Ballard, Carnell Tate, and Brandon Inniss are all going to be listed as backups or second stringers on the Buckeyes’ depth chart. Handing them kickoff and/or punt return duties would be the perfect way to get these players onto the field while also keeping starters out of harm’s way. Not that we want anyone harmed, but you get the point. Not only that, but all three are dynamic athletes with return experience.

Ballard is one of the fastest players on the Ohio State roster, and both Tate and Inniss scored on kickoff returns in high school last year. The former two have seen return reps in Columbus already, either last season (Ballard) or during the spring (Tate), so it seems as if they are already being looked at as options. Inniss obviously arrived in the summer, but returning kicks does not require the same experience or knowledge of the playbook (as WR).

The options do not stop there for OSU, either. Egbuka is still very much in the fold, and he has nearly broken a handful of returns (already) as a Buckeye. Chip Trayanum is built like a tank with NOS under the hood, and he received a short audition as a returner last season. Then how about Evan Pryor, Dallan Hayden, or Lorenzo Styles Jr.? Those are just a few names that come to mind, but Ohio State has plenty to choose from.

So at some point, I predict that one or two of the players above will break a big one. Multiple actually, since I predicted a score via kickoff and punt return. And if I had to put money on it, my bet would be on Ballard... To do both. How’s that for bold!? I think the Massillon, Ohio native is due for a breakout season, and what better way to announce one’s name to the world than by replicating (some of) the success of Ted Ginn Jr.?

You heard it here first, folks. Joshstradamus out.