Over the summer, Buckeye Empire will be bringing you an in-depth position by position breakdown and highlight the young men that will be pursuing perfection and the hopes and dreams of hoisting the crystal ball in Pasadena this coming January. We begin our series with Special Teams and the 2012 season in review.
In 2012, Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes stunned the college football world. Meyer exceeded the unrealistic expectations that were set for him, by taking a team, fresh off of a losing season, to a perfect 12-0 record. For a team to become as successful as the 2012 squad was, it is imperative that every unit contributes. It is nearly impossible to thrive at the collegiate level, without efficient special teams play.
Jim Tressel taught us countless lessons throughout his ten seasons at Ohio State. His most important lesson of all may have been the significance of special teams. Tressel truly believes that the punt is the most critical play in football. He found success by winning the battle of field position. His conservative style of play, deemed “Tressel Ball”, was not always the most exciting approach but it was extremely effective. Jim Tressel is 241-79-2 as a head coach, dating back to 1986 when he began his career with Youngstown State. He led his teams to nine national championship games, winning five of them, with the most recent being in 2002-03, as the head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes.
When Urban Meyer took over the reins in 2011, he also emphasized the importance of special teams. Meyer decided to personally coach this unit, with the assistance of cornerbacks coach, Kerry Coombs. Urban began implementing drills in spring practice that created pressure situations for his kickers, in hopes of preparing them for the season. On Student Day, he asked hundreds of students to circle around Drew Basil while he kicked field goals, in order to see how the kicker would react in that type of environment.
Meyer was fortunate to inherit a team at Ohio State that included a veteran punter and kicker. The Buckeyes’ punter, Ben Buchanan, was a tremendous asset to the 2011 team while averaging almost 42 yards per boot. Drew Basil was in charge of Ohio State’s kicking duties. Basil entered the 2012 season with an 84% field goal percentage and only one missed extra point.
Ben Buchanan found continued success in 2012. The senior punter averaged just over 41 yards per punt with only four touchbacks. Buchanan pinned the ball inside the 20 yard-line over 27% of the time throughout the 2012 season. Gauging how talented a punter is by simply reading statistics can be deceiving. For example, Buchanan’s average of 41 yards per punt means very little without knowing his exact field position. In terms of ball placement, there were instances last season in which he placed his punt perfectly, within the five yard-line, but his team was unable to down the ball successfully. Buchanan may not have had the most powerful leg in college football but of his 62 punts in 2012, only fourteen were returned, for a total of 66 yards. While watching film on Buchanan, it becomes evident that he was instrumental in Ohio State finishing undefeated. He will be greatly missed in 2013.
A considerable amount of Buchanan’s success can be attributed to the Buckeyes’ coverage unit. Long snapper, Bryce Haynes, was the most overlooked, under-appreciated player on this team, in 2012. Hailing from the Peach State, Haynes was considered to be the best long snapper in the nation coming out of high school. Bryce did much more than simply snap the football. Whether he was downing the ball or making a tackle, Haynes had an impact on virtually every punt, last year.
The punting unit did, however, struggle at times throughout the 2012 season. The Buckeyes had three punts blocked, with two of the blocks resulting in touchdowns for the opposition. Meyer experimented with several different punt protection schemes – all variations of a “spread” – but never seemed to completely correct the problem. Fans were left holding their breath every time Buchanan attempted a punt.
Ohio State’s punt return team was productive in 2012, accounting for four total touchdowns. Two punts were returned for touchdowns by the Buckeyes’ main return man, Corey “Philly” Brown. Brown’s first came against Nebraska when he brought a punt back 76 yards for a score. His second came on the road, against Wisconsin, when he returned a punt 68 yards, scoring the first points of the day for the Buckeyes. Bradley Roby can be credited with the other two special teams’ touchdowns. Roby scored his first of the year in the season opener against Miami (OH), by jumping on a high snap in the end-zone. His second came by way of a Travis Howard blocked punt, in Bloomington, against the Indiana Hoosiers. Roby also blocked a punt of his own in the Big Ten opener against Michigan State, earlier in the year.
Adam Griffin transformed into a standout performer as the season progressed by playing on virtually every special teams unit. His most notable play came at the half way point of the third quarter, in Happy Valley, against the Penn State Nittany Lions. With the Buckeyes leading 14-10, Penn State punter, Alex Butterworth, lined up to punt. Rather than punting, Butterworth dropped back to pass and threw a perfect ball to wide receiver, Derek Day. Griffin wasn’t fooled by the fake and played the ball perfectly, causing an incompletion and turnover on downs. Adam Griffin has become an integral part of this Ohio State team due mainly to his tremendous special teams play.
In addition to blocking punts, these Ohio State special teams’ players also thrived when it came to blocking field goals and extra points. Urban Meyer did not hold back when choosing which players would attempt to block the kicks, as he used virtually every defensive starter in these formations. The first blocked extra point of the 2012 season came at the hands of Johnathan Hankins, in week 2, against UCF. Two weeks later, Orhian Johnson batted down an extra point against the visiting UAB Blazers. This unit was vital in Ohio State’s win over Purdue. In the first quarter, Garrett Goebel blocked a Boilermakers’ extra point, keeping the score at 6-0. In the third quarter, Johnathan Hankins made one of the most crucial plays of the season by blocking a 34 yard field goal attempt by Purdue, keeping it a one-score game and allowing the Buckeyes’ offense to score and force overtime.
Drew Basil’s duties were limited in 2012, as he only attempted 11 field goals all season. Heading into conference play, he had only kicked one field goal, which he made, from 23 yards out, against UCF. Throughout Big Ten play, Basil missed only three field goals. His misses came from 35 (IU), 50 (Purdue) and 28 (UM) yards out. Basil hit from 24 (MSU), 35 (IU), 31 (ILL), 41 (UM), 52 (season long)(UM), 28 (UM) and 25 (UM) yards out, in conference play. He also attempted 57 extra points, missing only one of them, against California. Basil did not have one kick blocked all season due to his superb protection up front.
The Buckeyes’ kick coverage unit was also outstanding last season. Ohio State’s kickers booted 57 returnable balls to their opponents, in 2012. Of these 57 kicks, the coverage team gave up only 21 yards per return and one total touchdown. Kerry Coombs labeled this unit “the piranhas”, due to their tenacity. “The piranhas” consisted of several freshmen, including Jamal Marcus, Najee Murray, David Perkins, Armani Reeves and Devan Bogard, among others. Two key contributors, Bogard and Murray, were lost with the same season-ending injury – a torn ACL. Overall, the coaching staff was pleased with this unit but would have liked to see more forced turnovers.
If there was a special teams unit that was less than perfect, it was the kick return team. Meyer used several different players as kick returners including Rod Smith, Bri’onte Dunn, Devin Smith and Bradley Roby, among others. Of the 30 returnable kicks that these players fielded in 2012, they averaged less than 19 yards per return with zero touchdowns. They did not have one return over 40 yards all season. The “hands team” also allowed two onside kicks to be recovered by their opponents. Meyer said several times throughout the season that he was looking for more playmakers to emerge. This is what he was referring to.
Overall, the Ohio State special teams unit, as a whole, did its part and helped the Buckeyes finish with a perfect 12-0 record. Sure, this unit had some weaknesses that they will have to improve on this off-season but with Urban Meyer in charge, there shouldn’t be any reason for concern.