Young 'Piranhas' Earning Notice At OSU

There was a lot to like about Saturday's big win against Nebraska, but one of the most impressive performances might have slipped under the radar. Ohio State's green but enthusiastic kickoff coverage unit did its job repeatedly and with a flourish, a trend that will have to continue against a good Indiana return unit this weekend.

It's not the highest rated group on the Ohio State football team, but Saturday night against Nebraska, it might have been the Buckeyes' secret weapon.

It's got a pretty cool nickname, too.

That would be Ohio State's "piranhas," a young kickoff coverage unit so named by assistant coach Kerry Coombs because most of its members are too small to be sharks. One thing is for sure, though – against the Huskers, those Buckeyes saw blood in the water and attacked.

The result was that of the nine Ohio State kickoffs that did not go for touchbacks, eight of them put Nebraska at or inside the 25-yard line – the new starting point for drives after touchbacks this season. The fact that the Buckeyes beat the default starting point seven times and matched it another while facing the explosive return man Ameer Abdullah was quite a feather in the cap of that unit.

"That was impressive," head coach Urban Meyer said. "That was a very good kick returner."

It's even more surprising that the Buckeyes are doing it with such a young roster. Thanks to attrition that has robbed the Buckeyes of some of the linebackers and defensive backs who would normally be on the coverage unit, a number of the players on the field for kickoffs are true freshmen who are trying to make a name for themselves.

Their youthful exuberance has been contagious, and perhaps no one exemplifies that more than Devan Bogard. The Cleveland native had perhaps the most impressive stop against the Huskers, bringing down Abdullah at the 8-yard line on an early return, one of his two tackles on kickoff returns on the day.

On the first one, Bogard went wild after making the stop while celebrating with seemingly the entire unit.

"Especially being a freshman, that's a big thing," he said of the emotion of the moment. "Just doing that, it gets me hype helping my team out, producing and basically knowing what I'm supposed to do, just doing my job."

Ohio State also got tackles inside the 25 by fellow true freshmen Jamal Marcus, Camren Williams and Najee Murray, three players who haven't yet had much chance to make an impact on defense but are finding a niche on special teams.

That's not to say there haven't been some veterans helping out. Senior safety Zach Domicone and redshirt sophomore Adam Griffin combined to make a pair of tackles at the 15 and 21, and Coombs has identified Domicone as the leader of the group.

"You're talking about a senior guy who is surrounded by all these freshmen, and they don't know what they don't know," said Coombs, also OSU's cornerbacks coach. "He's starting to gather them up before they take the field. He's trying to take some of the leadership of that group and inspire them and motivate them."

Domicone's message has been that there is still work to do. Though the Buckeyes were outstanding against Nebraska, keeping Abdullah to an 18.0-yard average, the team still has allowed returns of 30 yards or more against each of the last five opponents.

Overall, Ohio State places 38th in the nation in kickoff coverage, giving up 19.5 yards per return.

"There's no room for error," Domicone said. "You're not allowed to take a week off. That's something that they've learned and need to continue to learn, that we need to continue to get better every week."

One thing that's clear, though, is that the players on the coverage unit want to be there. Meyer has told his team that players must work their way up the food chain in order to see the field, and step one on that is to show great effort on special teams.

"You have to play special teams before you can get on the defensive side of the ball," Bogard acknowledges.

That's one reason why there's little hesitation when it comes to being asked to be on the kickoff unit. Another is the fact that the new kickoff rules make it even more of an impactful group, as the chance to keep a team inside the 25 is alluring.

Some teams across the country have chosen simply to kick the ball out of the end zone and put teams on the 25, but Ohio State has made the conscious decision to leave things in the hands of its piranhas.

"We've been told every week it's the first play of defense," Domicone said. "If we really want to go down and help our defense, it starts with us. Field position is an important part of the game, and special teams is an important part of the game. It's a role that we've embraced."

The mentality is evident across the entire group, all the way down to Basil, who made a tackle Saturday and has shown a willingness to stick his nose into things the past two seasons.

"We're doing everything we can," said Armani Reeves, another member of the unit. "We pretty much treat it like its offense or defense because it's that important. We embrace it and we try to make it the best in the country. That's our goal."


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