Today is a big day for Ryan Pretorius. It’s also a big day for Aaron Pettrey. Ditto for Ray Small, Maurice Wells and Lamaar Thomas.
Actually, it’s a pretty big day for a number of Ohio State football players. When the Buckeyes get practice underway at 3:30 p.m. for the annual kick scrimmage, there will be plenty on the line for them to strive for.
Chief on the list of priorities is sorting out the team’s special teams units that, aside from punting, all ranked near the bottom of the country last season. When OSU gathered for the first practice of fall camp, head coach Jim Tressel opened things up with a focus on special teams, saying the Buckeyes were going to dive in deep and make sure the players understand how important special teams play is from a technique and concept standpoint.
That will all come to fruition today as the Buckeyes go through the team’s annual kick scrimmage. Although some of the practice will be devoted to regular position drills, the bulk of the snaps will revolve around the kicking and punting units.
It is a scrimmage where starting jobs are both won and lost. Two years ago, it was a tearful Pretorius who could only watch as the younger Pettrey outperformed him and won the right to enter the 2006 season as the team’s primary kicker.
One year later, the former professional rugby kicker found redemption as he showed a more steady, consistent leg and won the job back from Pettrey, who later was revealed to have been suffering from a groin injury. Pretorius went on to connect on 18 of 23 field goals with a long of 50 yards, although four of his five misses were blocked. Pettrey returned to boot 32 kickoffs with four touchbacks for an average of 64.9 yards per kick.
This year, Pretorius is hoping the status quo remains.
“Obviously a kick scrimmage is the big thing to do here and I proved myself last year and I’ve been very consistent since then,” he said. “You’ve just got to build on the momentum. Hopefully it’ll be the same as last year where Aaron’s going to do a superb job on kickoffs and transfer all his energy into that so he can be the leader of the country in that and I’ll be able to be solid in field goals.”
Last year, Pretorius credited his consistency throughout the season in practice as being the main reason why he was able to win the job. It was solely the 2006 fall kick scrimmage that cost him the starting job, he said.
As a result, it could be the 2008 fall kick scrimmage that could perhaps cost him the job should he not perform well. If he’s feeling the pressure, Pretorius was not showing it.
“I’m just building on the momentum we built from the year before,” he said.
On the other side of the ball from the kicker lies the return game, a unit that underperformed last season for the Buckeyes. As a team, OSU averaged just 17.65 yards per kick return, a figure that put them 117th out of 119 Division I schools.
The Buckeyes were better in punt returns with an average of 8.91 yards per return – good for 58th in the country – but still short of the team goal of 10 yards per return. They were also 57th best in the nation in covering kickoffs, allowing an average of 21.1 yards per return.
Those are all figures that need to improve, and there is hope. In the return game, Tressel referred to Small as being “as good of a punt returner as there is anywhere” before adding that the blockers up front need “to do a good job of creating some lanes for them and giving them a chance.”
Small led the team with 21 punt returns for 153 yards last year, an average of 7.3 yard per return, and with 22 kick returns for 391 yards – an average of 17.8 yards. Although he is also penciled in as the team’s No. 3 wide receiver, Small said he feels his biggest impact this season could come in the return game.
He is not alone back deep, however. The scrimmage will allow the Buckeyes to look at a number of candidates. During the team’s public practice August 18, Small took turns returning kicks with Malcolm Jenkins, Maurice Wells, Jamario O’Neal, Anderson Russell, Lamaar Thomas and Devon Torrence. In the punting game, DeVier Posey took some kicks as well.
In addition, the Buckeyes often use wideouts Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline to return punts.
“Those are solid guys, so we’re not lacking there,” Tressel said.
The Buckeyes appear to have plenty of options on special teams. After today, they will hope to have some solutions.