If it weren't for one Brian Hartline touchdown on a punt return – against woeful Kent State – the Buckeyes very well could have finished among the worst in the country in both punt and kick returns. OSU finished 117th out of 119 teams in kicks returns, and when Hartline's 90-yard score is taken out the Buckeyes would have placed 84th in the nation when it comes to punts.
"We had some issues last year," said wideouts coach Darrell Hazell, who is in charge of OSU's kick return unit.
The kick scrimmage held Thursday in Ohio Stadium perhaps showed some hope. The star of the proceedings was Ray Small, the wideout who led the squad in both kick and punt return tries in 2007.
Small was the only player on either side to return a kick or punt for a touchdown, taking a punt by A.J. Trapasso all the way.
"That was a nice return," said Chad Rogosheske, an offensive graduate assistant who works with special teams and was the coach made available afterward. "It was a good scheme. They faked a reverse and had the wall set up for the sideline. It was effective and he ran it well."
Slightly crestfallen on the other side was Trapasso, who lamented his kick in the middle of the field that allowed the Gray squad to set up their return. But perhaps more important was that the team would like to see more plays this season in which the is left flailing at air as a Buckeye athlete goes running past.
That was a feeling Trapasso got to experience anew on Thursday, and one got the feeling it's not that foreign to the former running back.
"These guys are incredible athletes," he said. "They're so quick and so fast. You think you have an angle on them for one second, then they're 10 yards ahead of you and you're still trying to figure out how that happened."
Other players were rumored to be standouts as well. Long snapper Jake McQuaide lauded Malcolm Jenkins for a long return on a punt, while Rogosheske gave credit to Brandon Saine for a kickoff return worth remembering and Dane Sanzenbacher for a similar try on a punt.
Those names all appear to be in the derby for the two spots on both kickoff and punt returns in 2008 considering the struggles that took place in 2007. The Buckeyes were unable to make up for the loss of Ted Ginn Jr., whose six punt return and two kickoff return scores were school records.
A battle beginning in spring ended with Small leading the squad with 21 punt returns, while Hartline had 20 and the lone touchdown. Brian Robiskie took seven tries and Jenkins had three. On the kick return side, Small had 22 but averaged just 17.8 yards per try, with Maurice Wells second on the squad with four and Saine with three, including the team's longest of 39.
Those players will attempt to lock up spots this season while players like Sanzenbacher on the punt side and Boom Herron the kickoff side have been impressive.
"We just feel we've got more options there this year," Rogosheske said. "This year there are more guys getting reps. We're just a little bit deeper with returners."
Sanzenbacher, in particular, received notice for his work in punt return game during the kick scrimmage.
"That might have the opportunity for a guy to kind of emerge a little bit, a guy we had practiced with doing it but maybe never had an opportunity to do it live," Rogosheske said. "Maybe that allowed him to become a candidate more so than maybe even we knew."
But no matter which players end up as the ones who take a star turn with the ball in their hands, there is more to a good return than just having a talented player stand underneath the ball. Last year, the return men didn't always have time or space in which to operate thanks to poor blocking on the front lines.
On the kick return side, Hazell called the blocking factor huge and said work has been progressing on setting up the wedge that allows return men to break free.
"We always talk about getting five-for-five up front," Hazell said. "If we don't get five-for-five, it's not going to be a good return."
The Buckeyes realized reality without Ginn last year. After a year to adjusting to having a non-legend returning the ball, the cards could show a different result in 2008 for the return game than 2007 did.
"We've done some pretty good things I think that will help us out next year," Hazell said.