Last year was not a banner season for the Ohio State punt return game.
As a team, the Buckeyes returned 27 punts for 139 yards, which equates to a paltry 5.2 yards per return. Illinois was the only team in the Big Ten with a worse average in 2016. Ohio State managed just one punt return of over 20 yards, which was the lowest number in the conference.
Needless to say, things have to change.
OSU special teams coordinator and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs is adamant that they will. He has taken the blame for the lackluster performance a year ago. The Buckeyes made punt returns a focus in the spring and that has continued in fall camp as well. They have also changed both technique and scheme in order to become more explosive.
Despite this desire for explosion, however, the number one thing that the Buckeyes will continue to look for in a return man is safety.
“The number one thing will be ball security,” Coombs said. “The number two thing is going to be ‘Can you put your foot in the ground and go get us some yards?’ Because we’re going to be better on punt return this season.”
In other words, daredevils need not apply. In fact, actually returning the ball falls well down the list of priorities for the entire punt return/punt block unit. That might sound odd, but it makes sense when you consider what happens after a punt return.
“I will tell you again, the number one objective of the punt block team is secure the kick,” Coombs said. “The number two objective is to be penalty free. If we do those two things, one of the best offenses in the country is gonna trot out there wherever they caught the ball and go play. So we’re not going to be taking a lot of unnecessary risks. Not with our offense. There’s no reason to. So those are our two number one objectives. The third thing is do your job. You’ve got a guy to block, block your guy. If you block your guy, our returner’s gonna have a chance. We won’t block them all, we can’t block all 11 because he’s got the ball in his hands. But he’ll have a chance to make something happen if we do that.”
The Buckeyes don’t yet have a No. 1 punt returner, but the search is ongoing and every rep is tracked. Every drop is magnified. Every false step is counted. The candidates, meanwhile, are plenty.
“We have a great group of fast athletes back there right now,” Coombs said. “K.J. Hill is probably the most secure receiver of punts and kickoffs. Great, great hands. Demario McCall is an electric player. Kendall Sheffield is very, very fast with his hands on the ball. Eric Glover-Williams can make you miss in a Port-o-Let. And Parris Campbell can catch both kickoffs and punts. So we have a lot of guys. J.K. Dobbins is dynamic. We have a lot of guys back there that are vying for the opportunity to do that.”
In order to secure that opportunity, however, they must first secure the football.
And then anything after that is gravy.