Urban Meyer hasn’t had a player return a kickoff for a touchdown since wide receiver Andre Debose did it twice in 2010. That was Meyer’s final season as the head coach of the Florida Gators. It also happened to be the last season that Ohio State football had a kickoff return for a touchdown as well.
That touchdown was scored by Jordan Hall, who went 85 yards against Rich Rodriguez’s hapless Michigan Wolverines.
The Buckeyes have returned four punt returns for touchdowns since Urban Meyer took over at Ohio State. However, they haven’t had one since the 2014 season.
Parris Campbell was very successful as a kick returner for the Buckeyes the last two seasons. He led the conference in 2015 with a 27.8-yard average. He would have led last season as well with a 36.6-yard average, but he only returned nine kicks on the season due to concussion concerns.
Despite the production, Meyer is still waiting for a return that goes the distance, however.
Campbell has stated that he is ready to step in if he is needed to return again, but the Buckeyes’ head coach has already handed the job over to somebody else.
“I want him to be our returner, kick and punt returner,” Meyer said recently of redshirt sophomore H-back Demario McCall. “He’s already been given — not given, but that’s his spot. And he’s training as if that’s the position. So he’s watching videotape. He’s training. He’s doing it no different than if he’s a starting corner or starting receiver.”
McCall was an outstanding returner in high school, but has returned just two kickoffs and five punts at Ohio State.
Given his speed and ability to make defenders miss, he could be an ideal candidate as a punt returner. His vision and straight ahead speed also make him well-suited to return kickoffs. As a player at a stacked position like H-back for Ohio State football, McCall is happy to have a role all his own.
“It’s very exciting,” he said. “Just with the offseason that I had, just getting stronger and getting bigger and getting my weight up and watching film, it feels really good.”
While watching film seems natural for every other starting spot, the practice of doing the same on returns may seem foreign to those on the outside. So what does Demario McCall learn from studying film?
“As a returner, you look for specific things such as your body position — like being able to judge the ball and being able to stand on your toes and catch the ball and look it in,” he said. “It’s the small details when it comes to the return game that really matters. There’s always room to get better. Vision-wise, speed-wise, trust-wise, just trusting the players who are going to be blocking. All of that.”
One of the reasons film study is so important is because there are rarely any live returns in practice. Given the collisions that can take place, reps are done without such velocity. The returner still catches and returns the kick, and the coverage guys run down and the blockers block, but no clocks are being cleaned along the way.
Visualizing the Moment
How do you improve as a returner when live returns are hard to come by?
“The way I went about it when I was back there at kick return, you’ve just gotta put yourself in that moment,” Campbell explained. “It’s kind of hard at practice when you’re not really getting those live reps, but I’m a big believer in vision and just seeing everything.
“Putting yourself in that moment even when you’re doing a walk-through, or receiver play, no matter what it is. Just kind of putting yourself in the moment and being able to see those things happen.”
The moment now belongs to Demario McCall, who is finally getting his chance to make a mark on Ohio State football. He expects to play a big part in the Buckeyes’ success in 2018.
“I think I can make a big difference with me being healthy,” he said. “Special teams on kick return and punt return, we didn’t really have that many returns last year. With me being healthy and trusting the guys on the special teams with me, I can make a big difference. We all can make a big difference.”
A returner needs vision in order to be effective, and McCall’s vision sees some good things happening for the Buckeyes. Now that he is finally healthy, he has some lofty goals ahead of him. However, those goals are grounded in the day-to-day work that it will take to get there.
“Just to be an All-American special teams-wise, punt return,” he said of his goals. “Just keep working, keep getting better every day and keep enhancing it.”