COLUMBUS — Outside of their friends and family, almost no one notices the often anonymous players running headlong downfield or muscling aside opponents on special teams.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer sure does.
“We kind of have a rule around here that you can’t play unless you’re involved in special teams,” Meyer said.
So before you can be a starter, let alone a star, for the Buckeyes, you have to put on a hard hat, pack your lunch pail and join those sweating it out on the teams that take the field when the offense and defense don’t.
Almost every well-known Buckeye has played his way onto the first team based on what he did on those grunt squads — and several have cost themselves a starting job by not committing to them.
Have an awful game? Get into trouble off the field? Skip a class or two? The first step in redeeming yourself in the eyes of the coaching staff is to contribute when you’re not in the spotlight, when you’re blocking for or defending against kicks and punts.
“Nothing is given to these guys,” running backs coach Stan Drayton said. “It starts with special teams. We have a philosophy that if you want to play your respective position, you have to provide some value to this team on special teams.”
It’s democracy in action. Players work their way up the depth chart and nobody elbows in ahead of anybody else without first serving on those often-overlooked groups.
Front-line players such as Bradley Roby, Rod Smith and Carlos Hyde are rediscovering that right now as the third-ranked Buckeyes prepare for Saturday’s home game with San Diego State. Up-and-coming tailback Bri’onte Dunn is, too.
Roby, an All-Big Ten cornerback and Smith, a backup tailback, first caught the eye of coaches by their work on special teams. They went on to be solid players at their positions. Then each was suspended for the opener, Roby for his role in an Indiana bar skirmish and Smith for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Now both are back with the commoners this week, trying to get back in the good graces of the coaches by showing they’re team players on kick teams.
Hyde won’t return for another couple of weeks, the result of a three-game suspension for his involvement in an alleged conflict with a female this summer. Even though he was Ohio State’s leading scorer and second-leading rusher last year, he’ll have to work his way back into the lineup.
Dunn is considered a promising runner, but the coaches have not been enthralled with his effort or attitude when called upon to do anything other than play his position. As a result, Dunn didn’t get into the opener against Buffalo.
“The head coach is very clear and in fact there were some guys who probably didn’t get to play as position players on Saturday because they didn’t start or play on special teams,” said Kerry Coombs, the Buckeyes’ assistant who oversees both cornerbacks and kick teams. “If you don’t perform in those areas, you’re not going to play.
“So the competition on special teams units is high.”
Playing on those selfless squads not only helps the team, it shows that a player isn’t in it strictly for the glory or the playing time. He wants to win.
One player who did not have a stellar game in the 40-20 win over Buffalo on Saturday was Armani Reeves, who started his first collegiate game in place of Roby at corner. He had a pass-interference penalty, was frequently beaten on routes and was clearly picked on by Buffalo’s offense.
But he also played 68 plays on defense and 12 more on special teams on a hot, humid day when several teammates were overcome with leg cramps.
Reeves’ willingness to play anywhere and everywhere didn’t go unnoticed.
“Armani (was) a tremendous special teams player for us a year ago,” Meyer said. “He played a lot of football for us in that heat. That helps with our depth.”
Wide receiver Chris Fields was a seldom used junior a year ago who ended years of grumbling about being bypassed and instead threw himself into special teams. He became a favorite of the coaches, and gradually worked himself into the receiver rotation.
On Saturday, he contributed all over the field, catching two touchdown passes and also running with abandon to make stops and blocks on kicks.
“Special teams is very critical,” Fields said. “Coach Meyer suggests that if you’re able to play you have to play special teams. I’ve been playing on kick return and punt block and kickoff teams. I’ve been trying to (raise) my value on the team as much as possible. And everybody knows that.”
Coombs regrets that several players, such as Fields, had to do double-duty in the opener. But he realizes that younger players see what is gained by taking one for the team.
“We need kids who can run down the field and take the load off of some of the starters and, unfortunately, on Saturday we had a couple of guys who had to catch a touchdown pass and then go cover a kickoff,” Coombs said. “We try to avoid that if we can. At the same time that will be our priority.
“And if (a player) can’t cover the kickoff then he can’t catch the touchdown pass.”
Meyer doesn’t mince words: You don’t play special teams, forget about starting.
“You just don’t play,” he said. “You don’t need your uncle calling, you don’t need anybody calling, you just need to go get on the special teams and then all of a sudden you find yourself playing.”