Coach's Corner: The Special In Special Teams

Former OSU assistant Bill Conley is back with his latest assessment of Ohio State football. Today, he looks at kicker Mike Nugent and the role of special teams as well as how OSU will handle the off week and much more. Click here for all of these opinions and remember that Coach Conley will conduct his next Chat Monday at 3 p.m.

As everyone in college football knows, Ohio State's best offensive weapon after three games is Mike Nugent.

When we talk about statistics, it's not how many passing yards, how many rushing yards or how many touchdowns the Buckeyes can brag about at this point. Instead, it's the eight out of nine field goals and even the extra points converted by Nugent for a total of 31 points. That makes him the second leading scorer of all players in the Big Ten at this early stage of the season. Considering the Buckeyes have scored a total of 73 points as a team, the importance of the kicking game can't be overemphasized.

OSU coach Jim Tressel is consistent in his philosophy that defense and superior special teams are more important than offense. As long as the offense is opportunistic, a football team can win if it can dominate in the other two areas. No one can argue with the fact Tressel-coached teams have been able to win conference and national championships with that formula.

An opportunistic offense means that the team must score points of some type when given the chance. Getting a turnover at the opponents' end of the field, bringing back a big kickoff or punt return and blocking a punt are all examples of opportunities that the offense must convert into points. Equally important is the belief that a long offensive drive must end up with points on the board.

A highly explosive offense that short circuits the scoreboard by tallying up yardage and points is never talked about in team meetings. If it happens in a game, it's a bonus. A Jim Tressel offense is one that doesn't shoot itself in the foot. It's designed to end each drive with a kick of some type: a punt to maintain field position; a field goal or an extra point after a touchdown. If one of those three things happens, it's considered a good series because no turnover has been committed.

There is no part of special teams that is overlooked. In the first three games, Ohio State holds an edge in kickoff returns with a 30.2 yards per return average to its opponents' 17.6 yards per return. Every time a kickoff return comes back at least 30 yards, it's like an extra first down on the offensive drive chart. This gives the offense a short field and Tressel's game of field position is right on track.

The punting game is never overlooked. First-year starter Kyle Turano has a 41.6-yard average, the same as the opponents. Statistics will show Ohio State with a 40.9-yard punting average. That's misleading, however, because Justin Zwick pulled a pooch punt out of the "kicking game bag of tricks" early in the season in order to maintain, yes, you guessed it, field position.

Special situations of the kicking game are covered on a regular basis. Punting out of the end zone, the kickoff after a safety, onside kicks and onside kickoff returns (known as the "hands team") are areas of special teams that can't be and aren't ignored. As the season continues, you will see pooch kicks, squib kicks, chip kicks and every other kick used in the game of football. Like a golfer picking out the type of club he needs for a shot, the Ohio State special teams will use any and every type of kick in its arsenal.

Penalties can not be tolerated on special teams. North Carolina State hurt itself in the kicking game with penalties and bad decision making during the game in Raleigh. Mistakes like this can be devastating. Or as Coach Woody Hayes would say, "You don't have the right to do that to your team."

Nugent has already been Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week twice this season. His confidence, leadership and talent makes him one of the greatest kickers in Buckeye football history. Look for him to continue his heroics as the season progresses. Mike is, without a doubt, the leading candidate for the Lou Groza Award for the best kicker in college football. I wonder if a place kicker would ever have a chance to win the Heisman Trophy?

The Off Week

These 14 days could well be the key to the most important part of the season -- the one that really counts. As the Buckeyes begin preparation for the Big Ten crown, I would anticipate the following items being under discussion in the staff meeting room at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center:

* The most immediate concern should be first down production. Second-and-long is not a good situation for a rookie quarterback to be in. The playbook is rather small at that point. A dropback pass, draw or a screen is about all you can call. Second-and-medium allows more options for the offense and makes defensive calls tougher. Play actions passes, counters, bootlegs, etc. would be potential first down calls along with the base running plays to add variety and less predictability to the offense.

Tressel is known for expanding the playbook as the season continues. Now, more than later, may be part of the staff discussions the next two weeks.

* The next hot topic might be "who should be the guy carrying the ball." Jonathan Wells played his best football his senior year. He challenged himself to be a better and tougher player. Lydell Ross needs to do the same thing. Coaches do not like a lack of consistency and fumbling the football by a senior running back. All it takes is one play for a backup to become the starter.

* Coaches are never satisfied, they don't have that luxury. A few plays, a few mistakes, a few injuries can make a big difference in the outcome of the season. The Buckeyes are one of the four teams in the Big Ten that are undefeated in early season play. You can bet Tressel and his staff are spending the next two weeks trying to keep it that way. You can't be 11-0 unless you're 4-0!

Wait, There's More

Here are some more observations following the nonconference schedule and, in particular, the win over N.C. State:

* On Zwick's play -- The one thing Justin improved on with the N.C. State game was he did not have any turnovers. The thing I did not see improvement with was his throwing of the football. Too many times passes were behind the receiver. Certainly, some of that has to do with the receivers' routes.

The timing and release has to happen sooner and he just needs to keep getting better for Ohio State to have a chance.

I'm not sure there is a great quarterback in the Big Ten with the exception of maybe Kyle Orton at Purdue and, really, that has yet to be proven, too.

* On the running game -- These two weeks are crucial for Ohio State in getting the running game put together, especially with the Big Ten season coming up. To win the Big Ten, you have to have a good running game.

The one thing I have yet to see Lydell Ross do is make the good cutback. He will hit the hole or bounce it outside. But if you get a fast fill from a safety or a linebacker you better be ready to cut it back some.

N.C. State had a lot to do with what we saw, too. They have exceptional talent up front and they could run. They could run a lot better than the first two teams they played. Their guys were getting off blocks and making plays.

* On where the offense was struggling -- It looked to me like Ohio State was confused with some of its blitz pickups by the backs. The communication was not where it should be. One time, they set a defensive end free and nobody blocked him. I think that communication has to get better.

* On the play of outside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter -- You don't want to overcoach those guys too much. You just want to let them play. They are both good natural athletes. I know the thing the coaches like about A.J. Hawk is he is an old school tough guy, kind of like a Chris Spielman- or Marcus Marek-type. He is a linebacker who will come up and put the wood on you and also drop and make plays.

Bobby Carpenter may be the best athletic linebacker in the United States. He was a tremendous athlete coming out of Lancaster High School. He was a swimmer and a football player. He did just about everything. He is a tremendous athlete from a tremendous athletic family.

* On the play of the defensive backs without Dustin Fox -- I was really happy with the play of those guys, particularly Donte Whitner and Ashton Youboty. That was the first big-time pressure game they have been in and they both responded very well. That was a really good sign. They were both really good high school players who came in and waited their turn and they got in there and did a super job.

The good thing about Dustin Fox is even though he isn't able to play, he'll do a great job with those kids when they come off the field on the sideline. He will help them out with their reads and their keys so they can make big plays on the ball. They are both very good athletes who can run well. It was a plesant surprise to see them out there getting the job done in the heat of battle.

EDITOR'S NOTE -- Bill Conley served as an assistant coach at Ohio State for 17 years. His columns will appear on every other week throughout the season. He will also will host a Chat session at 3 p.m. Monday afternoon. Conley also hosts a weekly Sunday morning radio show on WTVN-AM (610) in Columbus from 9 a.m. to noon.

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