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Published: Wednesday, 9/15/2010

OSU determined to fix coverage units

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

COLUMBUS - Ohio State has reached mid-September with a 2-0 record, it has outscored the opposition 81-31, and its No. 2 national ranking seems quite secure.

But all is not well, since despite dominating play by its defense and efficient execution by the offense, Ohio State's foundation has a very wobbly third pier. So far, the Buckeyes have taken the word "special" out of special teams play.

Ohio State had a field goal blocked and returned 61 yards for a touchdown in the season-opening win over Marshall. In Saturday's 36-24 victory over No. 12 Miami, the Hurricanes took a kickoff back 88 yards for a score and then returned a punt 79 yards for another touchdown.

Again, it's just one-sixth of the way through the season, but at this point the Buckeyes' defense has allowed one touchdown, while the Ohio State special teams have surrendered three - all on long returns.

"The thing about special teams, not unlike offense and defense, is you need all 11 guys doing exactly what needs to be done," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said Tuesday at his weekly news conference.

The Buckeyes are moving into a stretch of the season where they will play two Mid-American Conference teams - Ohio, then Eastern Michigan - and open the Big Ten schedule with Illinois and Indiana. Things get tougher after that, and Ohio State's players have said they won't be able to get away with special teams lapses down the line.

"We take a lot of pride in our effort, but we struggled on special teams," senior defensive back Chimdi Chekwa said after the win over Miami. "Next week and the week after, expect a better performance from the special teams."

Senior linebacker Ross Homan said the two long returns for scores by the Hurricanes give the Buckeyes plenty to work on.

"We're happy with the win, but we can't let teams take kicks back on us like that. That can't happen. We've got to go to work and fix that, and I'm confident we will get it fixed," Homan said following the Miami game.

Ohio State senior wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher said special teams play has always been a priority with the Buckeyes.

"It's preached to us all the time that special teams win championships. We try to pride ourselves on that," Sanzenbacher said. "We did not have a great game in that area, and I think a lot of guys kind of took that personal. We're just trying to put our best foot forward."

Tressel said the Ohio State staff is looking at both personnel and schemes to try and determine where the coverage units have failed.

"There are different spots on the field where technique has to change," Tressel said. "We're constantly looking for the right place for a guy, because the thing you don't want to do on a special team is put a guy in a position that he's not capable of doing that job."

Tressel, who does not have a special teams assistant on his staff but gives that unit a lot of his attention, said he is conducting a full review of the problems the group has had.

"We've got to get better, we've got to look at the kickoff coverage unit, for instance - I'm not picking on them - and know that at the beginning of the play we do avoid blockers," he said. "At the end of the play we do stay square in our gaps. You know, our punt coverage, we've got to be fanned [out] to the field, et cetera, et cetera."

Tressel also said he wouldn't hesitate to move some of his starters onto the special teams if that is what it takes to shore up his kick and punt coverages.

"I think [we] owe it to the team to utilize more reps for those skillful guys, as long as they can do the technique of that unit," he said.

"This week we'll find out who ought to be the 11 guys that get to run down or who are the guys that need to stay in front of the punt returner, even when they think he might fair catch and so forth."

Defensive back C.J. Barnett injured his knee in the win over Miami and had surgery Tuesday, Tressel said. Barnett is expected to miss the remainder of the 2010 season. He will be replaced as the Buckeyes' starter at strong safety by fellow sophomore Orhian Johnson.

Ohio State cornerback Chimdi Chekwa has been named the Bronko Nagurski national defensive player of the week by the Football Writers Association of America after his two interception performance in the Buckeyes' win over Miami. Chekwa will be added to the watch list for the 2010 Bronko Nagurski Trophy, awarded to the best defensive player in the country.

Chekwa, a senior from Florida, also had six tackles, one tackle for loss, and broke up two passes. Chekwa was also honored as the Big Ten's defensive player of the week.

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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