The last time Ohio State returned a punt for a touchdown was last November against Michigan.
Freshman wide receiver Chris Olave blocked a Will Hart punt and it ended up in the arms of freshman cornerback Sevyn Banks, who ran it in the rest of the way for a touchdown.
It’s a great way to return punts, but it doesn’t happen nearly often enough to be relied upon.
The last time Ohio State returned a traditional punt for a touchdown was also in November…of 2014.
Redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall scored his first of four second-half touchdowns against Indiana on a 54-yard punt return.
Since that touchdown, the Buckeyes have fielded hundreds of punts and returned absolutely none of them for a touchdown.
Obviously, Ohio State would like that to change this season, but it’s lot more difficult to accomplish than it looks. And it may not always be the priority at the moment.
Sometimes the situation calls for a punt block or a safe return where there could be a fake on the horizon. Or maybe field position is such that you simply want the returner focused on catching the ball. With a good offense, they can then take it the final 50 yards for a touchdown, as Ohio State has done for years.
“Well, despite what it might look like on TV, they’re harder to come by than you might think,” special teams coordinator Matt Barnes said of returning punts for touchdowns. “Yeah, you know, I wouldn’t say the average punt return is explosive. There has been no lack of points being scored here. So I will say that. So I think you’ve got to find that happy medium of playing the field position battle and picking your fights. You just have to play situational football and be really smart about how you approach it.”
Every punt situation comes with its own considerations. Sometimes a coach needs to try to change the momentum of the game, so he’ll call for a punt block. If there are more players rushing the passer, there are fewer setting up for a return. Poison has to be picked on every punt.
And then you also have to consider who is back there returning the punts.
If you have Ted Ginn, you might set up more returns. If you don’t have a dynamic returner, then you have to weigh the pros and cons in every punt that comes up.
The question currently is whether or not the Buckeyes have a punt returner worth leaning on.
Ohio State’s lack of explosion in the punt return game has been a 3-year struggle. Even aside from scoring on returns, the Buckeyes have struggled to make any kinds of plays.
KJ Hill has been the primary returner and has averaged 5.4 and 5.5 yards per return respectively over the last two seasons. The year before that, Dontre Wilson averaged 6.3 yards per return.
The Buckeyes haven’t had a dangerous punt returner since Jalin Marshall in 2015, but the danger then wasn’t always one-sided.
At least with Hill the last two years, Ohio State knew the ball was going to be caught.
“KJ’s outstanding. We know what we’re going to get there,” Barnes said. “We’re a program that believes in playing our best players on special teams. So I think we’ve got a pool of guys that we feel good about. Hoping to continue to develop some younger guys. But, you know, again, I think you got to pick your battles there. Be smart about when you use certain guys, and can you use the same guy every time? Maybe not. And again, I think that’s why you try to build depth there.”
So far in camp, KJ Hill continues to be among the prospective punt returners. He has been joined by slot receivers CJ Saunders and Jaelen Gill, running back Demario McCall, and freshman receiver Garrett Wilson.
All bring something different to the position. Saunders and McCall bring the most experience. Gill and Wilson bring the most unknowns, which may not be a bad thing considering what Ohio State has gotten from their return game the previous three seasons.
“CJ Saunders is outstanding,” Barnes said. “Some younger guys, Jaelen Gill’s done a great job for us there. Works his butt off catching those punts and getting ready. Garrett Wilson’s another young guy. So there’s a myriad of guys that we feel really good about. And again I’m sure I left somebody out somewhere. We’re just trying to continue to develop the right guy at that spot.”
And how is the freshman Wilson handling himself so far?
“Outstanding. Yeah, really good. He’s smooth,” Barnes said. “He’s got unbelievable ball skills. He’s got confidence that far exceeds his years. So expecting good things from him.”
With the number of options, both proven and unknown, that the Buckeyes have, there is still an overarching mandate from Ryan Day to find somebody who can make plays.
Begin there, and then work backwards.
“We want to be aggressive,” Barnes said. “So when we get our chances, we want to make sure we got a good scheme. We’re going to be techniqued up and I know our guys are going to play really hard. So we have a lot of confidence in our ability to maintain possession and also give ourselves a chance to increase field position.”