Spring Forecast: Special Teams

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Last updated: 03/02/2014 3:01 AM
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Football
OSU Spring Forecast: Special Teams
By Tony Gerdeman

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A good team without a great special teams is a team that is waiting to lose a game that it shouldn't. For the Buckeyes, they are looking to avoid such a failure, but they'll be doing it with a special teams unit that features a freshman placekicker.

The group as a whole will be young, but talented. This spring will go a long way towards either reassuring the coaches that they'll be okay, or forcing their hands to find another way to go about their business.

Unfortunately, spring isn't always the best way to get a read on how the special teams will perform because returns and coverage aren't done with contact, and the pressure of a practice kick can't match that of a game kick.

What it will do, however, is set a routine for performance that will hopefully spread from practice to the games come this fall.

Who's Coming Back?
Cameron Johnston (5-11 190) returns for his sophomore season of punting for the Buckeyes. He was one of the absolute surprises of the team a year ago, coming over from Australia and leading the Big Ten with an average of 44.0 yards per punt. Having now gotten an even better feel for the game, he should be improved in 2014.

Sophomore Dontre Wilson (5-10 180) returns to be the team's likely kick returner again this season. He averaged 24.9 yards per return on 21 attempts last season, but only had a long of 51 yards. Wilson is the only current Buckeye who returned a kick of any kind last year.

The coverage units will feature plenty of first and second-year players, as well as a few veterans if coordinator Kerry Coombs deems it necessary.

Expectations Heading Into Spring
True freshman kicker Sean Nuernberger (6-1 235) has enrolled early and will participate in spring practices. He can be expected to be a pretty busy kicker, though he won't just be given the job. He will still have to earn the right, though the coaches will certainly be hoping that he does so. Kyle Clinton (6-1 220), a senior walk-on, will be competing with Nuernberger throughout camp.

It's difficult to say who could be joining Dontre Wilson as the team's other main kickoff returner. Would it be Ezekiel Elliott (6-0 218), or would his status as the team's possible starting running back mean that they don't want him returning kicks?

There are certainly plenty of possibilities, though the more pressing concern would be punt returner, where the Buckeyes have nobody of experience at that position. Devin Smith (6-1 198) has taken reps in practice, but hasn't returned a punt since 2012 when he returned a whopping four.

Redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall (5-11 199) should be involved in both return units, as may true freshman Johnnie Dixon (5-11 195). Evan Spencer (6-2 205) could help out at punt returner, and don't be surprised if freshman Curtis Samuel (5-11 185) is repping at both return spots.

Best Case Scenario
Since the return and coverage units can't really do too much during the spring, the best case scenario would more involve Sean Nuernberger showing off a big and accurate leg. If he can do that, then that will make Urban Meyer feel a bit more comfortable.

There's no doubt that Cameron Johnston has a unique leg, but he will need to avoid the not-so-unique sophomore slump. Meyer and Coombs might want to get cute this spring with the different types of kicks he is capable of, but there could also be a danger in that as Johnston might then go away from what worked so well for him a year ago.

One to Watch For
The definitive answer here is Sean Nuernberger. In fact, he might be the only answer. If he can't split the uprights at the rate that Meyer requires, then it will be interesting to see how long Meyer sticks with him.

The handling of kickers is always a touchy subject, and the situation isn't eased any by introducing a freshman into the picture. Ideally, Kyle Clinton will challenge Nuernberger every step of the way, making both of them more trustworthy than when the spring began.

Trending Up or Down
Until the Buckeyes know if they have a consistent kicker, then this unit is trending down. There is also the not-so-small matter of the lack of explosive returns. When people talk about areas that need to be improved, they shouldn't skip over the return game.

The Buckeyes covered well enough last season, and the expectation is that they should again. With a consistent kicker and a more fearsome return game, this unit could trend up. Until that happens, however, things are trending down.

Final Thoughts
It's going to be difficult to get an accurate feel for exactly where the kicking game is this spring. All we will really know is if things are going terribly. The good thing for Sean Nuernberger is that he's on campus and will experience a kicking competition immediately. That will toughen him up quickly. By the time August rolls around, he will be more experienced than most freshman kickers.

The Ohio State punting game has the potential to be one of the best in the country. The way the Buckeyes covered punts last year without allowing returns, they were able to win the field position battle routinely. There is no reason to expect that the same won't happen again this season, which already puts the Buckeyes ahead of the game.

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