With the kickoff moved back five yards this season to the 30-yard line, many teams across college football have opted for a switcheroo.
The time-honored tradition of choosing to defer upon winning the toss has given way to a new strategy: get the ball and get up the field with hopes of better field position than in year's past when touchbacks were more prevalent.
A young, aggressive Ohio State kickoff team is doing its best to turn that strategy on its head, however, even with the Buckeyes touchback percentage down from 48 to 14.
Last season on non-touchbacks, Ohio State opponents had an average starting field position of their own 26.4-yard line.
Despite having to run an extra five yards this season, the Buckeye kickoff team has pushed that average back more than a yard, to the 25.2.
“I think in general, our kickoff coverage has done pretty well,” Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel said this week. “There have been some balls that weren't kicked very high and very far and they've still done a solid job of covering. There have been some balls that were kicked high and down inside the 5 that they've covered extremely well.”
Tressel, who would never be accused of lacking perspective, was quick to point out that his young unit, which is anchored by true freshmen Brian Rolle and Eugene Clifford, has given up a few long gainers.
Most notable was the 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that represented the only points Northwestern scored last week.
“About four guys hit that guy and we didn't wrap up,” Tressel said of the Northwestern touchdown.
Clifford was one of the players to get a shoulder on Stephen Simmons before the Wildcat broke free down the sideline.
“Now that is something that we can't survive, but I think it's been a pretty fair unit,” Tressel said. “But that's the problem with kickoff coverage units: One play can change whether you're pretty fair or not, and so hopefully we'll learn to wrap.”
A week earlier, Washington enjoyed long returns of 35 and 41 yards, but the kickoff team also came up with one of the biggest plays of that game when Shaun Lane stripped the ball from Curtis Shaw on a third-quarter kick return. OSU’s James Scott pounced on the ball at the Washington 25 and two plays later Chris “Beanie” Wells carried over for a 14-yard touchdown that put Ohio State up 10 points just minutes after trailing by four.
Though the overall numbers are good, perhaps the up-and-down nature of the coverage is a symptom of youth.
The lineup fluctuates a bit, but four true freshmen (Rolle, Clifford, Scott and Devon Torrence) and four redshirt freshmen (Marcus Williams, Tyler Moeller, Thaddeus Gibson and Chimdi Chekwa) have been among the most-used players.
The starting defenders have certainly taken notice, including recent kickoff-team alumnus
Kurt Coleman, a sophomore who has moved on to a starting spot at safety.
“I wish I could be in there making big hits like them, but it’s also a good time watching them do a good job,” Coleman said. “They fly down and they make a lot of plays. I think they’re the fastest kick coverage I’ve seen. Last year we weren’t as fast.”
Another starter, linebacker Marcus Freeman, said the performance of the kickoff team has dual benefits.
“I think the biggest thing is they give us great field position,” he said. “And second of all, when you see guys running down the field and getting a big hit, I think it fires your whole team up. It gets everybody hyped and we want to out there and make a big play.”
Of the youngsters, Clifford has been the leading tackler so far with eight and Rolle has been credited with six stops, but a few upperclassmen have made their presence felt as well.
Junior Jamario O’Neal has nine tackles while Lane has seven and the forced fumble to his credit.
Juniors Nick Patterson (three tackles) and Austin Spitler (15 stops also accumulated while rotating in with the No. 1 defense) also can be seen quite frequently chasing Ryan Pretorius kicks down field.