[Editor’s note: This breakdown was written prior to the Iowa game, so the statistics mentioned below will not have Saturday’s game taken into account.]
It is no secret that covering kickoffs has been nothing short of a rollercoaster ride for the Buckeyes this season, but not the well-maintained rides at the major amusement parks.
This is a traveling carnie ride that comes with a waiver before riding.
On the season, the Buckeyes have kicked off 65 times, good for 4th nationally. While this is a tip of the cap to the offense for putting points on the board, it also means the Buckeyes have their most vulnerable unit on the field more than most teams in the country.
The Buckeyes have averaged 56.6 yards per kickoff, worst in the Big Ten and 127th out of 130 qualifying teams, and only 6 touchbacks on the season. Some of the stats can be skewed due to the scheme in terms of lack of touchbacks, but providing the opponents with a kick return from at or near the 10-yard line is also less than ideal.
Perhaps the most disturbing stat lies in the number of returns of 30 yards or greater.
The table below lays it out in all its glory, but should be noted that Michigan State and Notre Dame have worse statistical outputs than Ohio State.
Makes you appreciate what the defense has accomplished that much more.
Statistics are nice and provide a good argument to a point or counterpoint, but what are the true coaching points of the kickoff coverage team?
I reached out to Chuck Zodda, unofficial “Special Teams Guru” at Inside the Pylon and former collegiate kicker, to get some more in-depth information when it comes to kick coverage. Zodda said he looks for breakdowns in any of the three zones when analyzing a coverage unit.
“Speed Zone (first 20 yards), are they flying downfield in a straight line down their lane? Avoid Zone, are they reading where the return team is setting up blocks and trying to work ‘butt-side block’ or are they getting walled off? Impact zone, are they narrowing lanes evenly and breaking down to use force and leverage or are they getting re-engaged and walled off?”
In addition to the three key zones, players are coached to establish “inside and in-front leverage.” It is their responsibility to determine the best path to the ball, but to never compromise this leverage.
As players are approaching the “Avoid Zone”, it will be up to the player to determine the best route and sometimes players overthink this phase, creating greater problems than originally set up. If a player decides to take an edge he is then losing a critical component of the coverage scheme. Because of this, Special Teams coaches are tasked with coaching attitude rather than technique.
So much of Special Teams is the physical nature in getting past a player without going outside of imaginary lines. In some ways this is a live version of the “Oklahoma Drill.” Some coaches have stated that covering kicks are more comparable to rushing the passer in terms of collapsing a pocket and maintaining even rush lanes.
Whatever analogy you prefer, just understand that largely it is an open field play with a number of mental obstacles along the way.
The tipping point came on the opening kickoff against Penn State. Ohio State aligned in a 5×5 formation pre-kick before Erick Smith moved to the left side of the formation shortly after the kick.
From a return standpoint, typically two players are left unblocked, usually L1 and R1, or the most outside cover players. This is because the return team wants to establish key double teams to create lanes and wall off defenders. As you see in the video breakdown, Keandre Jones (#16) also makes a drastic move towards the middle of the formation, resulting in a large gap between defenders and instantly compromising any chance at leverage he may have established.
Also critical to this return was the lack of awareness when approaching the “Avoid Zone.” Notice the Penn State blockers forming to the right side of the screen, seemingly uninterested in the left side defenders. The actions of Smith and Jones essentially created a numbers advantage for Penn State while also giving them leverage to the wide side of the field with arguably the most dynamic runner in collegiate football.
The Buckeyes need to better identify the changes occurring in front of them, which is no easy task I’m sure. As you will see later in this article, a little patience will go a long way in containing a kickoff.
For comparison sake, I reviewed last season’s kickoffs versus Penn State. While a few key factors are missing, i.e. Saquon Barkley as the return-man, the cover scheme was a little more buttoned up.
First, the kick has better trajectory and hang time as the cover unit is near the 25 at the time of the catch. Second, and most importantly, the safeties maintain a discernible gap between the initial wave of impact defenders and themselves. This patience gives them an opportunity to read and react to the blocks as well as the path of the returner.
Penn State didn’t do anything special on this return, but it shows the amount of preparation teams have put into creating an advantage and perhaps even creating a change in momentum against the Buckeyes. After all, this is the only play where the opponent knows exactly what to expect from Ohio State, as there is very little variance in the scheme over Urban Meyer’s tenure.
We’ve all heard the definition of insanity as doing the same thing but expecting a different outcome. That about sums up this unit. Ironically, it is likely his very own unit that keeps Urban awake at night.
Similar to the breakdowns against Penn State, we had already seen this movie before earlier in the season when Ty Johnson returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score. The names on the jerseys looked a bit different but the problems were exactly the same, leading me to believe it is a coaching issue and not necessarily a personnel issue.
Until the coverage unit uses a skosh of awareness, the same problems could remain.
In reviewing film of Meyer’s best coverage units, the Championship team of 2014 ranked the highest, 6th nationally. What is interesting is the amount of pure speed athletes on the team as it consisted of: Corey Smith (84), Erick Smith (1), Chris Worley (35), Craig Fada (38), Ron Tanner (20), Vonn Bell (11), Dante Booker (33), Gareon Conley (19), and Curtis Samuel (4).
With teams consistently leaving L1 and R1 unblocked, this provided Corey Smith and Curtis Samuel opportunities to win leverage with speed, not necessarily strength. As you will see in the video below, Samuel was very disciplined to not become engaged in a block, but rather fall behind Conley to avoid a block and read the return on the second level. The speed of Corey Smith proved to be lethal versus Alabama, resulting in a long field for the Tide offense.
An often-understated component to the success of this unit was the hang time created off the foot of Kyle Clinton. This increased hang time allowed the cover team to be at the 23-yard line when the ball was caught, a huge difference from the 2017 team who gets to around the 30-yard line.
The addition of Austin Mack and Dante Booker should provide a nice blend of speed and strength, perhaps in place of K.J. Hill and Keandre Jones, but what should not be forgotten is the speed and agility lost with the departure of Eric Glover-Williams.
The first step is acknowledging a problem exists, and Urban Meyer has certainly acknowledged this, but time is running out to get this critical phase corrected before “Championship Season” is upon us.
Whether it’s a matter of clearing the mental hurdles or adding additional speed to offset the lack of hang time, I look forward to another opportunity to correct what is arguably the last step in the makings of a B1G championship run.