By Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer's estimation, at least 50 Buckeyes made more appearances than senior receiver Chris Fields during the 2012 season, and a lack of special teams production by the player was to blame.
Fields, who had career one touchdown entering Saturday's game against Buffalo, now has his special teams act together. As a result, he split time at slot receiver with Philly Brown, scored two touchdowns in the Buckeyes' 40-20 opening-game win and also graded out as one of three "offensive champions" for OSU.
It's a lesson Fields had to learn the hard way, but the opportunities finally came to him by virtue of improved play on special teams, particularly on punt and kickoff coverage. And there are more young Buckeyes that will attempt to follow in Fields' footsteps, players like freshmen Vonn Bell (who made three special teams tackles against UB) and Cam Burrows.
That, OSU coaches say, is the road all Buckeyes must travel if they hope to compete at their respective positions.
Of Fields, Meyer pointed to improved play on special teams as reason for increased opportunities.
"(Fields is) one of the most improved players on our team," Meyer said during a Monday press conference at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. "He's involved in special teams. But we kind of have a rule around here that you can't play unless you're involved in special teams, and he's really done a nice job for us."
New special teams coach Kerry Coombs would like more players to step up like Fields. Not only would that mean more chances for young players to get on the field at their positions, it would mean increased depth across the board.
"The head coach is very clear," Coombs said. "In fact, I think there were some guys who probably didn't get to play as position players on Saturday because they didn't start or play on special teams. If you don't perform in those areas, you're not going to play.
"In games like Saturday, we need kids who can run down the field and take the load off of some of our starters, and unfortunately on Saturday we had a couple of guys who had to catch a touchdown pass and then go cover a kickoff. We try to avoid that if we can, but that will be our priority. If you can't cover the kickoff, you can't catch the touchdown pass."
For example, sophomore running back Brionte Dunn's situation could be considered the inverse of Fields'. A 6-0, 220-pound, Canton (Ohio) GlenOak product, Dunn appeared in 11 games as a true freshman and scored two touchdowns; however, he did not appear in the game against UB.
OSU running backs coach Stan Drayton pointed to a need for Dunn to improve his special teams play before he can mix it up with his fellow running backs for carries.
"All of our players are held to the standard of if you find your way on special teams," Drayton said, "then you can find your way on the offense or on the defensive side of the ball, and Bri'onte needs to continue to find a little bit more of a role on special teams so that he gets an opportunity to play on offense."
The formula is simple – play hard and play well on special teams and then you compete within your position group. Having returned kickoffs for the Buckeyes throughout his career, fifth-year senior running back Jordan Hall knows this well.
In fact, Hall still has to worry about a deep pool of running back talent that could result in fewer carries as the season continues despite paying his special teams record.
"It is difficult," Hall said. "There are running backs that didn't get on the field. But Coach Drayton, he's straight down the middle with us. So if there's something you're not doing, and you gotta be on special teams to be carrying the ball. If you're not on special teams, you're not going to carry the ball."
The depth at running back will deepen even more with the return of redshirt junior Rod Smith from a one-game suspension for an offseason transgression. And Smith also knows the value of special teams, having earned valuable carries during the 2012 season after impressing on the unit.
Leave it to special teams play to weed out some of the competition, though. As Fields knows, it's the first and only chance you'll have to prove your worth.
"Special teams is very critical," Fields said. "Coach Meyer suggests that if you're able to play, you have to play special teams. I've been playing on kick return and punt block and kickoff team, and I've been trying to show my value on the team as much as possible and everybody else knows that.
"Coach runs a business – you have to get stuff done. You've got to come out every day with a good day. Sometimes if you don't have a good day, that man behind you can go right in front of you."