There are some jobs open on the Ohio State special teams, but the options seem plentiful.
The Buckeyes return junior punter Jesse Mirco, who averaged 45.4 yards per punt last year. That number was the second-best at Ohio State over the last 35 years. The only better average in that span came from fellow Australian Cameron Johnston, who averaged 46.7 yards per punt in 2016.
As such, the punter job isn’t really open.
The place-kicking job, however, is another story entirely.
Noah Ruggles departs, having made 37 of his 41 career field goal attempts as a Buckeye. Four different kickers played in April’s spring game, though one of those four — Jake Siebert — has since departed for the transfer portal.
Right now, it looks like USC transfer Parker Lewis — who was on the OSU roster last year — and Jayden Fielding will be the two main contenders to be the Buckeyes’ placement guy this year. Fielding has never attempted a field goal or extra point in an actual game, but was OSU’s kickoff guy last year as a true freshman.
Lewis, meanwhile, was the starter at USC in 2020 and 2021. He made 26 of 35 kicks in those two years, and 46 of his 47 point after attempts.
“I feel like we’re in a good place,” Ohio State special teams coordinator Parker Fleming said of his kicker battle. “We had really three guys get a lot of reps in the spring. You guys saw Jake’s no longer here. So we’ve really got two guys that both had great springs. Jayden and Parker. Jayden kicked off for us last year. Parker’s got experience other places. We’re excited about the fall. A lot of talent. Now it’s time to figure out what happens down the line.”
What will it take for Fielding or Lewis to win the job?
“It’s a consistency thing,” Fleming said. “You really want to have a guy that you know what you’re gonna get. That’s really what it comes down to. He’s got to make kicks. Gotta be dependable.”
The Buckeyes must also replace the always-dependable Bradley Robinson at long-snapper. Robinson suffered a torn ACL against Iowa late last season, and backup Mason Arnold transferred to Michigan State after the season.
In an attempt to replace Robinson, Ohio State went into the portal and signed junior John Ferlmann, out of Arizona State.
“We want to have competition,” Fleming said. “And so John had great film as a freshman. I know some people that knew him out of Arizona State, and he wanted to come compete against the best and he did and I thought he had a really nice spring.”
Ferlmann spent the spring with the ones, while junior Max Lomonico was the backup.
“John’s got a lot of starting experience, and I’m excited about that room, that position,” Fleming said. “We’ll see where it goes, but right now John, he had a really nice spring. Max did too, but that’s kind of the way it went.”
Many Happy Returns?
The Buckeyes are returning both of last year’s starting returners, though nobody was so prolific at the position that they can’t be replaced.
Receiver Xavier Johnson led the team with 12 kickoff returns for 269 yards (22.4 avg), while receiver Emeka Egbuka was the top punt returner with just 11 returns for 75 yards.
This past spring, redshirt freshman receiver Kaleb Brown was repping as the No. 1 kick returner and also getting opportunities as a punt returner. Following the spring, however, he transferred to Iowa.
Despite the departure, Fleming still feels good about where things stand at kick returner.
“We had a bunch of guys that have done it around here,” he said. “Emeka, obviously, two years ago was really good. Xavier Johnson ended the season for us last year, had a really nice little stretch there. We’ve got a bunch of names of guys that can do it. We feel really good about it.”
The problem comes in when the person you have back there then becomes a more focal point of the offense. This has happened the previous two seasons. True freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson began the season as the Buckeyes’ top kick returner in 2021, but was quickly removed from that position once he became the top runner.
Egbuka has gone through a similar situation. He replaced Henderson as OSU’s kick returner in 2021 and led the Big Ten with a 29-yard average. But as a starting receiver last year, he was removed from the kick return game.
With Ohio State’s offense being as explosive as it has been under head coach Ryan Day, however, the need for return yards has been lessened. That is especially true on kickoffs when a fair catch will set you up at the 25-yard line every time. That’s a difficult thing to say no to for most head coaches.
The theory behind returning punts isn’t much different for the Buckeyes, though they definitely have some explosive options.
“Kaleb was practicing back there, Jayden Ballard was back there in the spring,” Fleming said. “We’ve had Carnell Tate catching punts. The internet went crazy when Marvin [Harrison] was catching punts during spring practice.”
All of that explosion is nice, but the first job for any punt returner is simply to secure the ball for the offense. If they can’t do that, then it doesn’t matter how what kind of returner they are.
“The truth is, getting the ball back is number one, and then deciding what happens next is kind of game-flow situation,” Fleming said. “So we want to have a bunch of guys ready to do that. It’s not an easy job, but if you practice it enough, you can get good at it, especially with those ball skills that those guys have. So I feel similar to the kick return situation and the punt return, different guys. But we have good depth, it just depends on who does it.”