Kickoff unit accepts challenge

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Speed isn't an issue, and neither is effort.

The kickoff coverage unit is athletic, ruthless and can smell a chance to make a hit from nearly 70 yards away as it lines up for one of its prized opportunities to have an impact for Ohio State.

But one thing the group might be missing is a lot of size, which has kept it from getting the nickname it initially wanted -- though the Buckeyes have since earned one that's more fitting and perhaps just as intimidating.

"They can't be sharks," cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said. "They have to be piranhas. We like to say that when kids go after a guy with the ball it's like sharks to blood. But with this group you can't say that, they're like piranhas just because they're like midgets.

"But they're an awful lot of fun to coach."

The school of hard-hitting fish includes as many as seven true freshmen for the Buckeyes, and they've all embraced their roles flying down the field, trying to pin opponents deep and set a tone for the defense. For a team that typically elects to pass on banging the ball out of the end zone for a touchback due to the new NCAA kickoff rules that bring the ball out to the 25, Ohio State has actually given those young guys plenty of responsibility in the third phase, and they've had no problem cutting some sharp teeth.

The freshman defensive backs on the unit, for example, all check in at less than 6-feet tall and weigh no more than 194 pounds. But Najee Murray, Armani Reeves and Devan Bogard have combined to make six tackles on special teams already this season, including three last week that on average forced Nebraska to start from its 16.

"We're not the biggest guys out there compared to a lot of the other kickoff teams," Reeves said. "But we're fast, we're strong and we're hungry -- and we play like that.

"I usually consider myself a big guy [at 5-foot-10, 194 pounds], but when they say little piranhas, it's just something that we all have that keeps us together. It's a really cool nickname that we all take pride in, and we're going to play like piranhas. We're going to play fast, nasty and get down the field as fast as we can."

The Buckeyes emphasize the latter all week long on special teams, though the challenge is particularly thrown down on Thursdays when the kickoff unit stages its weekly race, with the winner chosen during a film review the next day and getting special recognition in front of the entire team.

The credit Ohio State coach Urban Meyer gives out to the his specialists and the importance he places on winning the battle for field position in the kicking game hasn't been lost on the Buckeyes. So even with the outcome well out of reach in the final minute against the Huskers after Ohio State tacked on a late touchdown, Coombs and the unit huddled up one more time and raced down the field like it was the opening kickoff.

Bogard just missed on pinning the Huskers inside the 20 by a yard -- but that's still a victory compared to a touchback and something the Buckeyes defense would be able to sink their teeth into as well.

"They're not perfect, they make a lot of mistakes, but they play really, really hard," Coombs said. "They're going to be factors in games, and that's important.

"Now, I don't know if they're going to get a lot bigger. But I wouldn't want to jump into a pool with a bunch of piranhas myself. One big shark or 11 piranhas, I think I'd take my chances trying to get rid of the shark."

Either way, the Buckeyes clearly trust their freshmen to get in the deep end and hold their own.