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Football: How much will special teams impact the Fiesta Bowl for Ohio State?

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Penn State freshman punter Blake Gillikin (93) and OSU redshirt sophomore wide receiver Terry McLaurin (83) rush towards the ball after a blocked punt in the second half of the Buckeyes game on Oct. 22. The Buckeyes lost 24-21. Credit: Alexa Mavrogianis | Photo Editor

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — For weeks, much of the talk for the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl has been about the offensive and defensive capabilities of both No. 3 Ohio State and No. 2 Clemson. However, there has been little discussed in terms of special teams, the unit that the Buckeyes take extremely seriously.

Kerry Coombs, the secondary and special teams coach for the Buckeyes, has a knack for coaching some of the best special teamers in the nation year after year. According to him, the effort of his gunners and kick coverage unit could make the difference in a game as evenly matched as OSU versus Clemson.

“I think they’re very, very good just like I think we’re very, very good,” he said. “I think there’s going to be a couple of areas in the game … I know that their national championship game last year hinged on some big special teams plays. I think that our kids are extremely well prepared, and I know that there’s are too. So, it’s going to be a lot of fun. I think it will be a factor in the game.”

One of the biggest weapons on Coombs’ special teams unit is senior punter Cameron Johnston. Johnston, a native of Melbourne, Australia, who has been punting for the Buckeyes for four years now, and is in his fifth year with the team.

Averaging a career-best 46.2 yards per punt in 2016, the Australian born punter has a few goals in mind against Clemson. The most prominent of those goals is limiting the returning ability of the Tigers’ returners.

“You never know how many times you’re going to punt, but when you do, you got to make sure it’s in the right area,” Johnston said. “If you get zero return yards for the day, you’ve had a good day.”

While netting zero return yards on punts has a lot to do with how the ball is kicked and the trajectory it takes before striking the turf the proper way, having help from teammates is necessary to limiting return yardage. Wide receivers like redshirt sophomore Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin have been instrumental on kick coverage success, playing predominantly at the outside coverage positions.

The players at those positions, known predominately as “gunners,” are known for their speed and athleticism, as well as the ability to hunt down the ball and bring down the returner quickly, or forcing him towards the middle of the field. For McLaurin, the chance to cut his teeth as a special teamer has resulted in his development as a well-rounded player.

“You kind of get your feet wet playing special teams,” he said. “Once you start making plays on special teams, you’re going to be making plays on offense. You see it all the time with guys coming through this program. That’s what we preach about competitive excellence.”

Although the Buckeyes have yet to score on a punt return this year, it is worth noting OSU has not given up a touchdown on a punt either this season. Part of that statistic has to do with McLaurin’s ability, while another part comes down to how well Johnston has played.

With a punter like Johnston who is a master at hang-time on punts, as well as a speedy player on the outside to get to the returner quickly, OSU might very well dictate the game. Pinning an offense deep in its own territory is something that Coombs feels could be the difference maker come Saturday.

“All the difference,” he said. “And not just big (plays), but just the innate field position difference. If we can gain yards with special forces throughout the game, which is our objective, it doesn’t show up as a big play. But it makes a dent in the scoreboard.”

OSU squares off against Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday at 7 p.m. in the University of Phoenix Stadium.

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