The Ohio State Buckeyes have not had a punt return or a kickoff return go for a touchdown since 2014 when receiver Jalin Marshall scored on a 54-yard punt return against Indiana. It was the first of four consecutive touchdowns for the redshirt freshman that day as the Buckeyes would go on to a come-from-behind 42-27 win.
And even though OSU wide receiver Emeka Egbuka led the Big Ten by averaging 29 yards per kickoff return last year, you have to go even further back than Marshall’s punt return to find the Buckeyes’ last kickoff return for a touchdown. That came in 2010 via Jordan Hall against the Michigan Wolverines.
Ohio State special teams coordinator Parker Fleming is well aware of both touchdown droughts and went to work last year trying to bring some rain. That nearly happened several times with Egbuka on kickoffs, but nothing really materialized with Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba at punt returner.
Given the explosive nature of both guys, it’s clear that the No. 1 priority was simply to field the ball and get the offense back on the field. Also, punting has become more and more specialized, which is also making punt returning more difficult to do well.
With Wilson off to the NFL and Smith-Njigba and Egbuka becoming increasingly more valuable to the offense, both return jobs could be up in the air.
“We do have some guys that can be in a rotation back there,” Fleming said. “If you noticed last year, Garrett started the year at punt returner and then Jaxon kind of took that over late. TreVeyon Henderson actually was the first guy back there against Minnesota last year and then Emeka, he ended up showing things in practice, even through fall camp it was back and forth. And the truth is, we want to get our best guys the ball as often as we can and that’s an opportunity that we can do that.”
During the spring, Smith-Njigba and Egbuka were still involved with the return game, but they were not alone. Safety Cameron Martinez has pestered Fleming to get some time returning punts for instance, and the list goes beyond just him as well.
“We also love to give opportunities to different people,” Fleming said. “I think Emeka owned that role at kickoff return, he owned it last year and had a really good season. And so there’s a lot of different factors. How much they’re touching the ball in other places? Do we have opportunity to get guys the ball back in those roles and how can you help our team? So going into it, that’s where we’ll be. I can’t tell you where we end up. But we do have a lot of options and I’m excited about it.”
Ohio State receivers coach Brian Hartline is known as one of the best recruiters in college football. And while you don’t need to look too hard at OSU’s roster to see the evidence of that, it may take you some time to run down the entire list of names that he has brought to Columbus.
But when he is asked about his reputation as an excellent recruiter, Hartline bristles a bit. After all, he doesn’t see himself as selling a player on anything, he’s just telling them about Ohio State. And besides, it doesn’t matter how good a recruiter you are if you’re not bringing in the right guys.
“What is an ‘excellent recruiter?'” Hartline asked mostly rhetorically last week. “I think that it’s more important to be able to identify talent than it is to communicate the information of why we’re different than others. I think that recruiting has a bad connotation to it. Like, I don’t do anything different than just explain why Ohio State’s a great university, and how Ohio State can help maximize and reach their goals. Clearly, a message is probably pretty important. But I think we pride ourselves on not necessarily finding the best guys, but finding the right guys.”
The Ohio State offensive line is returning three starters from last year, but only two of those players will be at the same position they were a year ago because returning starter Paris Johnson has moved from right guard to left tackle.
This isn’t the first time Johnson has been at left tackle for the Buckeyes. In fact, it’s the position he came to Ohio State to play. He got some work there as a true freshman, but last year he was completely immersed at guard. And in order to be good enough to start, both feet had to be in.
Now that he’s back at left tackle, Johnson’s feet are just the beginning.
“Being inside versus back out in space is an adjustment,” new OSU offensive line coach Justin Frye said last week. “Your footwork when you’re reaching a wider five technique versus a three technique, there’s a lot of technical stuff that is different. So we’ve just got to keep working it. [Paris] had a great spring. He got better every day. As we talked after practice eight, I said ‘Hey Paris, you played major college football tackle for eight practices, how do you feel?’ He said, ‘Coach, I’m getting it and I’m feeling good about it.’”
Every year as an Ohio State team takes shape, people want to know as much as possible about their favorite squad.
Some of the information that is sought surrounds the depth chart or the new freshmen or new risers or a myriad of other tidbits or battles. There is also the desire to know about the superlatives, such as who is the fastest Buckeye and who is the strongest Buckeye. When the players are asked this, names can differ, and sometimes guys vote for themselves.
But when presented with the opportunity to ask these questions, it’s best to go straight to the expert — Ohio State strength coach Mickey Marotti. Marotti spoke with reporters last week and he was eventually asked about those superlatives.
“Fastest guy on the team right now?” he said. “It’s either — again, somebody’s gonna get mad but I don’t care. It’s either [redshirt freshman cornerback] JK Johnson or — I’ll take one from offense, one from defense. JK Johnson on defense. I’m gonna go [redshirt freshman wide receiver] Jayden Ballard on offense. Somebody will be mad. They all think they’re fast.”
And the strongest Buckeye?
“Well, you got some strong cats,” he said. “[Sophomore left guard] Donovan [Jackson] is pretty strong. Him and [redshirt sophomore center] Luke Wypler are pretty strong on offense. On defense, all those inside tackles are pretty strong.”
But what happens when you put all of the athletic traits together? Who is the best overall athlete on the team?
“Best overall athlete? I will not answer that question because they will come after me on that one,” he laughed.