Ohio State football spring position analysis: Specialists seeking top gunners
Editor’s note: In the days leading up to Ohio State’s annual spring game, The Dispatch will assess where the Buckeyes stand at key positions.
Today: Special teams
Position coach: Matt Barnes (first season).
Key losses: K Sean Nuernberger, KR/gunner Johnnie Dixon, gunner Terry McLaurin.
Key returnees: K Blake Haubeil, P Drue Chrisman (second-team All-Big Ten), KR Demario McCall, PR K.J. Hill, PR C.J. Saunders.
New to view: The Buckeyes’ punt coverage team will look different without receiver Terry McLaurin, who excelled as a gunner, the position in which players lined up wide race downfield in an effort to slow a returner. Few performed the job better than the consistent McLaurin. New special teams coach Matt Barnes is tasked with finding replacements this offseason, a cast he can cycle through during the spring game.
Unit ranking (on a 1-to-5 basis, five being the best): 4. The Buckeyes have considerable returning experience, led by a pair of juniors — an all-conference punter Drue Chrisman and kicker Blake Haubeil, who took over for Sean Nuernberger last October. Chrisman is considered one of the best punters in the Big Ten, but Haubeil has been more inconsistent. He missed two field-goal attempts inside 35 yards last fall, including one that was blocked by Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game.
Stat that worked: Ohio State’s kickoff and punt coverage teams often gave opposing offenses a long field to navigate in 2018, pinning them deep inside their own territory. The Buckeyes finished second in the nation in opponent average starting field position, according to CFBanalytics.com. On average, opponents began drives at their 26-yard line, meaning they needed to traverse three-fourths of the length of the field to reach the end zone against the Buckeyes.
Stat that must change: It’s been a little while since the Buckeyes made big plays in the return game. They last returned a punt for a touchdown in 2014 and last returned a kickoff for a touchdown in 2010.
Notable: Barnes, who came aboard in January, could make an imprint after overseeing special-teams success in his previous stop, at Maryland. Last season, the Terrapins were one of only six teams in Football Bowl Subdivision to return multiple kickoffs for touchdowns. Maryland lineman Jesse Aniebonam also blocked and returned a punt 45 yards for a touchdown.
Monday: Offensive line
Tuesday: Defensive line
Wednesday: Linebackers, specialists
Thursday: Quarterbacks, receivers
Friday: Running backs, defensive backs