The Buckeyes didn't finish in the top 30 in the nation in any major special teams category, topping out at 31st in punt return defense. There were big plays to be sure – think Corey Brown's punt return touchdowns vs. Nebraska and Wisconsin – but there were also long plays and blocked punts that went the other way.
In the offseason, there was one change – the promotion of cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs to special teams coordinator. The ever-enthusiastic staffer might be just the person needed to attack what ailed the special teams a season ago, as his hard-motivating but ultimately confident style has already started making an impact.
"We weren't good, and we have to be better – that's the mantra," he said this spring. "And we can because it's more effort-based than anything. It's a lot of man stuff – I have to beat my man. I have to do my job. I have to grow up here, and it has to be a priority for me to do my job to be successful. Anything less than that is unacceptable."
Head coach Urban Meyer has personally coached special teams throughout his career, and his belief is that it is certainly among the more important facets of the game. In fact, winning the kicking game is part of his "Plan to Win," the guiding philosophy the Buckeyes attempt to abide by in each contest throughout the season.
Meyer's philosophy has always been to sprinkle his best, most impactful players on some special teams units in an attempt to ensure that breakdowns were minimized. In addition, for a young player, proving that they can handle the rigors of special teams work is the key to increased playing time – a path running back Rod Smith followed last season.
To help keep pushing players along that path, the Buckeyes graded each special teamer every day during the spring in an effort to again push home just how important the kicking game is.
"We grade them every day on special teams – every player, every day, we post the grades," Coombs said. "If you're not performing, there is going to be a conversation about that and why you're not doing that. Why would you not embrace this role? Our expectation is that you're a starter, you're on one or two of the running teams. If you're a non-starter, you should be on all four, and if you're not, why not? Why are you not competing to be that guy?"
Coombs and the staff don't expect that to be much of a problem going forward. With a number of linebackers and defensive backs arriving at Ohio State this fall – plus the anticipated returns to health of players like Najee Murray and Devan Bogard – there should be plenty of options when it comes to putting younger, hungry players on the field to help improve coverage units that were certainly less than airtight at times and a punt unit that had trouble blocking at times thanks to a revolving door of blockers.
"I think special teams are improved based on two things," Coombs said. "The emphasis that is in place on it by the head football coach, I don't think you can have a greater emphasis than we have here.
"And then the quality of your players and your depth. We were not a deep team last year. We played more freshmen than any team in the country. There were times when our kickoff team and some other units had seven true freshmen on the field. Those kids are all grown up."
Then there's the matter of who will punt the ball. Drew Basil seems entrenched as the team's kicker after making four field goals in the Michigan game to move himself to 24 for 30 – an excellent mark of 80.0 percent – over the past two seasons, but the Buckeyes were left without a punter when recruit Johnny Townsend chose to change his pledge to Florida after National Signing Day a year ago.
The Buckeyes auditioned Basil and freshman wideout Frank Epitropoulos as well as a few walk-ons at the spot this spring, with Basil leaving the 15 practices as the man on top despite the fact his reps were limited in order to keep his leg fresh thanks to some advice from NFL kicking coaches.
However, that doesn't mean there's still not room for improvement, as expected by Coombs, who watched Jacob Rogers do both for Cincinnati because of injury in 2009.
"(He was) good, not great," Coombs said. "A tremendous transition to throw on a kid who hasn't really – he was our backup punter last year so it's not like Drew didn't punt every day, but there is a difference in being the guy in two critical areas. It does change the way they have to do their business, and we tried to work our way through that this spring.
"I think Drew Basil has a great work ethic. I think he has all the physical tools to get the job done. I think that he will because I think that is important to him. I think he wants to go down in history as one of the great combo punter/kickers in the history of Ohio State football. And the reality is we don't kick many field goals. We're going to score touchdowns in the red zone, so let's go punt a little bit, Drew, and increase your value."