During the Jim Tressel era at Ohio State, Buckeye fans knew what to expect: a largely conservative offense with an emphasis on special teams.
One of those things remains true under third-year OSU coach Urban Meyer.
Following an Oct. 4. win over Maryland, in which the Buckeyes held the explosive Terrapin return game to just 12.7 yards per kickoff return, Meyer was ecstatic about his special teams unit.
“That kickoff team, those are my guys. I might put them in first-class on the flight home. I have so much respect for those guys,” Meyer said after the game. “I love their demeanor and how they answer challenges. I was very impressed with our coverage units.”
Not only did the Buckeye kickoff team shut down the Terrapins, the punt team, despite only seeing the field twice, did not allow Maryland to attempt a return.
In fact, one of those punts — a 69-yard boot from sophomore punter Cameron Johnston — pinned Maryland inside its own 10-yard line. OSU redshirt-freshman linebacker Darron Lee picked off Maryland redshirt-senior quarterback C.J. Brown on the first play of the ensuing drive, eventually leading to a Buckeye score.
Johnston said seeing his teammates capitalize on the exceptional special teams play is always enjoyable.
“It was nice to be able to get it down there and then Darron (was) able to take that.” Johnston said. “It definitely feels good.”
Junior linebacker and special teams specialist Craig Fada said Wednesday that the special teams units get a lot of attention in practice.
“We work on special teams countless periods every day in practice and it’s just a way for us to change the game,” Fada said. “It’s a way for us to have our defense in a better position, our offense in a better position, just to help all around.”
He added that playing special teams for the Buckeyes is another way for younger players or unproven players to show the coaches they are deserving of more playing time.
“We put a big emphasis on special teams and it gives younger guys a place to make an impact on the game,” he said. “And all the younger guys always want to get on those, and even the guys that aren’t fully equipped to get on defense yet want to get onto special teams, and that’s just a way to help.”
During last Tuesday’s Big Ten teleconference, Meyer mentioned one specific player whose play on special teams has kept him in a scarlet and gray uniform.
Redshirt-sophomore running back Bri’onte Dunn, who has seen limited time on offense this season, saved his Buckeye career on special teams, Meyer said.
“He was gone. He would not be renewed next year if he would not have made a jump on the field and off the field,” Meyer said. “He earned it, for about two, three weeks in a row in practice on scout punt rush he was our best player. (Gave) incredible effort, and he earned some playing time. He is now starting on three special teams phases and we are going to think about working him into the offense now.
“What an incredible journey he has been on, and we hope it sticks.”
Johnston, Fada and Dunn might not be household names in Columbus but neither were Mike Nugent, Jake McQuaide or Nate Ebner when they first entered Ohio Stadium.
All three are now on NFL rosters as special teams standouts.
The Buckeyes are scheduled to take on Rutgers on Saturday at Ohio Stadium. The homecoming kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m.