The joke going around Buckeye Nation is that Ohio State needs to stop scoring points because they result in kickoffs.
Anyone paying attention to the Buckeyes’ kicking game this season, particularly the kickoffs, knows that things tend to go sideways when OSU tees it up — as in bouncing left, right and out of bounds.
Ohio State has kicked off 65 times, resulting in four balls going out of bounds. Its eight opponents have kicked 31 times, with none going out.
It gets worse. It would be one thing if kicking it out of bounds, which results in the ball being placed at the 35-yard line, was the only problem, but the kickers also struggle to boot the ball deep. At least that’s how coach Urban Meyer sees it. His kickers — Sean Nuernberger and Blake Haubeil — have tallied six touchbacks (all by Haubeil); opposing kickoff specialists have combined for 12.
Kicking it deep also would help solve the breakdowns in kickoff coverage, which have occurred with alarming frequency.
But on Tuesday, Meyer was perplexed by the inability of his kickers to launch the ball into and through the end zone on kickoffs.
“We’re the only school in America that can’t kick it out of the end zone, even with the wind at our back,” Meyer said. “I’m not a kicking expert, but kick the ball out of the end zone. We don’t do that. It’s not because of telling them not to kick the ball out of the end zone.”
A lot to unpack there, beginning with Meyer’s assertion that Nuernberger and Haubeil cannot kick the ball through the end zone, which results in a touchback and the ball at the 25. There also is the issue of Meyer saying the kickers are not being coached to not kick the ball as deep as possible.
That point is in dispute, because Meyer’s preferred strategy is angling the kick toward the left end zone pylon, just short of the goal line, to force the receiving team to attempt a return that OSU hopes results in a tackle inside the 20 or a turnover.
What’s going on here? A lot, as it turns out. For starters, notice that Meyer admits to not being a kicking expert. Quality control coach Adam Scheier oversees the kicking game, under the gaze of Meyer and special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs. Yet Meyer makes it his business to insert himself specifically into special teams play.
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To better understand why the Buckeyes are struggling on kickoffs, I turned to three actual experts on the subject: former Ohio State kickers Tom Skladany (1973-76), Tim Williams (1990-93) and Dan Stultz (1997-2000).
It should be noted that all three think the Buckeyes’ strategy of kicking the ball short and toward the corner is more risk than reward. They also are confident that both Nuernberger and Haubeil have legs strong enough to kick the ball into — and probably out of — the end zone, depending on wind conditions.
“You don’t get a four-year scholarship if you can’t (kick it far),” Skladany said.
You can see why Skladany described the kickoff issue as “a sore subject.” Does the fault lie with the kickers, the coaches or the scheme? In a word, yes.
Skladany is quick to point out that times have changed for kickers. For example, he was a straight-on kicker, not a soccer-style sidewinder like today’s kickers. Also, straight-on kickers during Skladany’s era were allowed to elevate the toe of their kicking shoe by tying it around their ankle, providing more lift through a higher launch angle.
But some things haven’t changed, such as coaches instructing kickers to angle kicks to cut the field in half for the kick coverage team. Skladany is no fan of that strategy, because it leaves too much to chance.
“I don’t believe in the scheme,” he said. “It’s like asking Willie Mosconi to make a four-bank shot right on the eight-ball. He can do it, but how many times out of 10?”
Williams, who makes a living working as a kicking and punting instructor out of Waynesville (check out upandthrough.com), does not think the scheme is perfect, but places some blame on the kickers.
“I do put a lot (of this) on the kickers,” Williams said. “If the coach wants 4.1 seconds of hang time, if that’s what you need to do, then do it.”
But Williams also is sensitive to asking kickers what they prefer.
“The first thing I’m going to do is base my coverage off my kicker,” he said. “Ask him what side he likes to kick to, and go from there.”
Stultz thinks the “to-the-corner” kick has become too predictable, so maybe try kicking it deep? He also pointed out that asking right-footed kickers such as Nuernberger and Haubeil to kick the ball toward the left corner risks them pulling it out of bounds.
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“I really believe if you just line the ball up in the middle of the field and hit hard as can, and not worry about placement (things will improve),” Stultz said.
I mean, why not? Can things get any worse?