What is less likely is to see anyone in Nos. 38, 25, 19 or 1. Those are just some of the numbers worn by Ohio State’s kick return unit: Craig Fada, Bri’onte Dunn, Gareon Conley and Erick Smith, respectively. Those names are not of the household variety, but without players like them who contribute on special teams, Ohio State would not be as successful as it is on the gridiron.
It has been said by many players and coaches across the nation that football is the ultimate team sport. A team cannot win with just a good offense, defense of special teams unit. All three need to fare well in order for the squad to find success. Special teams under Urban Meyer, much like under Jim Tressel before him, are a priority.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer praised Fada specifically during a recent radio show, calling Fada “the epitome of team play.”
Fada can be found on Ohio State’s depth chart as the second backup to redshirt freshman Darron Lee at strongside linebacker. However, Fada is more likely noticed on the kick coverage team. The walk-on from Columbus Bishop Watterson had recorded three tackles through the first five games of the season and said he is happy to be able to make an impact by playing on special teams.
“It’s just a way for us to change a game, a way for us to put the defense in a better position and the offense in a better position – a way to help all the way around,” Fada said.
The kick coverage team is made up of a mix of unheralded walk-ons like Fada and scholarship players who have not made an impact on offense or defense. A prime example is Dunn. The sophomore was a five-star prospect from Canton (Ohio) GlenOak, but he has not yet cracked the rotation at tailback.
However, Dunn made his presence known at Maryland. He was one of the first players down the field to meet leading Big Ten kick returner Stefon Diggs on Ohio State’s first kickoff of its Oct. 4 game at Maryland. Diggs took the Kyle Clinton kick a yard or so inside the end zone and raced up the field. He only reached the UM 10-yard line before falling at the 11.
Dunn was joined by Conley on the initial hit, and several other Buckeyes quickly swarmed Diggs. For the afternoon, Diggs was limited to 38 yards on three kick returns, an average of 12.7 yards per return. He entered the game averaging 29.4 yards per return, best in the Big Ten.
“That kickoff team, those are my guys, man,” Meyer said after the game. “I might put them in first-class on the flight home. I have so much respect for those guys. I love their demeanor and how they answer challenges. I was very impressed with our coverage units.”
Meyer later called the first kick coverage stop “one of the best plays I’ve ever seen.” Fada said he took great pride in Meyer’s comments.
“It makes us feel real good because all the guys on that team are just selfless,” Fada said. “The kickoff team, and all specialists really, want to do something to help everybody out. It’s our time to kind of shine.”
Unsurprisingly, special teams is a key part of Ohio State’s practices. It also helps give players who are struggling on offense and defense a chance to shine.
“We put a big emphasis on special teams, and it gives younger guys a place to make an impact on the game,” Fada said. “All the younger guys want to get on those (teams), and even the guys that aren’t fully equipped to get on defense yet want to get on to special teams. That’s a way to help.”
And help they have. Ohio State ranks second in the Big Ten in kick coverage, allowing 17.38 yards per kick return. That places the Buckeyes 18th nationally, trailing only Iowa (14.00, second nationally) among conference schools.