Return Game Unsettled

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Last updated: 07/09/2014 11:55 PM
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Reader Mail: Let's Talk About the Ohio State Return Game
By Tony Gerdeman

COLUMBUS, Ohio — One of the aspects of the Buckeyes that we didn't really get into much this past spring was that of the return game. The special teams were obviously worked on every day, but never in a way that would allow anybody other than a placekicker to stand out.

Returns aren't live, and they're more about blocking than returning. It's never really worth watching, especially when you're trying to learn about everything else going on in the two or three live practices that you actually get to watch.

It also doesn't help when there are no kickoffs, and punts inside the WHAC usually bounce around in the rafters like the world's largest Plinko board.

Perhaps due in part to this lack of coverage of the return game, I got a question about it this week and I thought it would be good to bring it out into the open and at least talk about the situation a bit.

Here's the question...

Dontre Wilson`s versatility got me wondering who you might think will be the Bucks primary punt returner this year. I was thinking someone like Curtis Samuel or Jalin Marshall. -- Michael Campbell

I had to go back through my spring practice reports to see who was actually returning punts, and early on it was Corey Smith, Dontre Wilson and Johnnie Dixon. It fluctuated throughout spring, but those were three of the more common candidates.

Dontre Wilson
Photo by Jim Davidson
Donte Wilson

To be honest, I've never really looked at Wilson as a punt returner, though I don't know why. I've actually been beginning to wonder if he would be phased out of the return game entirely given his value as a receiver, but that never kept Philly Brown from being the team's main punt returner the last two seasons.

I do think that if Wilson remains at kick returner, then asking him to be the team's punt returner would be a bit much, especially with so many other candidates out there.

Corey Smith is a sure-handed guy, and Johnnie Dixon is an explosive decision maker. I also like Jalin Marshall, and he has fielded punts in practice since his arrival in 2013, I believe.

Devin Smith has also fielded punts in practice over the years, but didn't field a single punt a season ago. I wouldn't expect that to change much in 2014.

Curtis Samuel was mentioned above, but I see him as more of a kick returner. If he's healthy enough from his injury last season, I would like to see what James Clark can do with some of those punts. Prior to his injury he was one of the most explosive players on the team as a true freshman. If he has returned to form, that would sure be an interesting way of getting him involved right away.

In the end, I think I'll stick with the three I mentioned above in Corey Smith, Dontre Wilson and Johnnie Dixon as the most likely candidates, with any of the three having a good chance to win the job.

I believe that Urban Meyer and Kerry Coombs certainly want a productive punt returner on the field, but more than that, they want a reliable catcher of the punt first and foremost. If that's a freshman, then so be it. However, I tend to think that's where Corey Smith has an advantage.

I'm not sure that Wilson should remain as the team's kickoff returner because the collisions are just too violent. That's really not the kind of risk that you want your possible number one receiver to have to deal with. At least with punt returning, only one side of the field is running full speed, which makes the collisions a little less explosive.

A season ago Ohio State's kickoff return duo was Wilson with either Ezekiel Elliott or Jordan Hall. While Wilson may very well continue returning kickoffs, I would expect to see somebody other than Elliott joining him.

The second returner is a blocker more often than it is a returner and there's really no need to put your starting tailback out there to do that when you've got plenty of other candidates.

If Wilson is not the team's kick returner, then it wouldn't shock me to see it be Curtis Samuel. Though I would have trouble believing that they would have true freshmen at both kickoff and punt returner.

Meyer and Coombs were both disappointed with the return game last season, and while it comes down to blocking more than it does returning, they will still be looking for the very best returner that they can find.

The good news is that there are plenty of promising candidates to choose from. Basically, if they get the blocking part down, they will have somebody returning kicks who can not only make a coverage unit miss, but can also run right by them before they even get a chance to try.

The best-case scenario would have the return jobs settled early in camp, and despite the amount of competition, the "starters" would hold their spots all season long with their superb production.

That all being said, it's still an inexperienced group in regards to punt returners, and the kick return duties may be in a flux as well. The Buckeyes may not even know what they truly have until the second or third week of the season, which wouldn't be ideal.

Meyer's recruiting has made this a very promising group overall, but that promise also makes it difficult to predict who will be where.

But since when has too much talent ever been a bad thing?

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