Special Teams Hardly Special So Far

Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel was praising his defense following Saturday's win against Miami (Fla.) because it allowed the Buckeyes to emerge victorious despite allowing two touchdowns in special teams. This week, the Buckeyes are working to improve an area of their game that has been troubling in the early going this season.

Ohio State is so serious about improving its play on special teams that a starting running back could find new work as a gunner on the coverage teams.

That was the message from linebackers coach Luke Fickell, who also oversees the team's punt coverage team. Junior running back Dan Herron, who goes by "Boom," could have a more expanded role this weekend as the Buckeyes try to shore up their special teams.

"You might see some guys like Boom Herron running down doing some things on the punt," the coach said. "We're trying to get some of those guys involved a little bit more that are great players but don't get as many reps."

Having a main running back playing a key role in special teams is not new – fellow starter Brandon Saine covered at least one kick in the Rose Bowl victory against Oregon – but doing it this season is. The team's performance in the first two games of the season gives a few good reasons why drastic changes could be in the offing.

Of the four touchdowns allowed by the Buckeyes in the first two games of the season, three have come by way of special teams: one blocked field goal returned for a score, one kickoff returned for a touchdown and one punt returned to the house. Entering this weekend's game against Ohio, OSU ranks 113th out of 120 schools in kickoff return yardage allowed at 27.09 yards per return and 109th in punt return.

After the Hurricanes took a first-quarter kickoff back for a touchdown, the Buckeyes resorted to directional kicking and short kicks for the remainder of the game.

Fickell pointed out that it would be near impossible for the Buckeyes to stress special teams more than they currently do. The unit has been a source of constant work since the 2009 season ended, and each practice has a few periods devoted to getting better in those areas.

Tuesday, head coach Jim Tressel said it is little things that have resulted in breakdowns in the kick coverage. Senior wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher said that as a result, things can get fixed in a hurry.

"From a punt perspective, (you can adjust) a little bit of your angle running down the field (or) the lane you stayed in," he said. "Maybe you were too far over and not right on top of the ball and the ball just spills out. Just the littlest things can turn it."

Minus the quarterbacks and linemen, the Buckeyes watch film of special teams as a big group. Senior cornerback Devon Torrence has spent some time on the special teams during his OSU tenure and said his teammates simply need to bite down and give it more effort.

"In (a big game), all our guys have to show up," he said. "That's the mentality and mind-set that we have. You don't let the guy next to you down. Whether people were tired or whatever, you can't have that. As long as everybody takes on that mentality now in our kicking game, we're going to get it corrected."

In addition, Torrence noted that former special teams demons such as Brian Rolle and Jermale Hines are now settled into full-time starting jobs and do not take part in the return games.

Fickell echoed Torrence's comments on what is needed to be successful on special teams.

"Ninety percent of special teams is a want-to," he said. "The effort is usually there. It's not an effort thing. Sometimes it's just a stress thing. Sometimes a guy thinks, ‘Well I'm only a defensive player.' No, you're not just a defensive player."

However, both Tressel and Fickell did mention that the coaches recognize that putting a player not accustomed to being a defender in position to make open-field tackles is not in their best interest.

"You just don't have that much data because there aren't that many kickoff returns, but we're constantly looking for the right place for a guy because the thing you don't want to do on a special team is put a guy in a position that he's not capable of doing that job," the head coach said.

Players like Herron, who started alongside Brandon Saine in the season opener but came off the bench in week two, are an exception.

"If you told me you had the chance for Boom Herron to do something, I'd take him whether it was tackling or running or catching the ball," Fickell said. "Same thing with Jordan Hall and a lot of other guys. Those are the kinds of people we try to get on the field."

Replays of the kick returned for a touchdown by the Hurricanes seem to indicate an illegal block in the back that helped spring the returner, but Fickell said the team will not use that as an excuse.

"We stress don't have any excuses," he said. "If you're hurt, you're hurt and you can't be out there. Don't have that crutch to try and make yourself feel better about it. They made the play and got a touchdown (and) we recovered and went on to still win. The good thing is you can still recover from it and hopefully learn from it."

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