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November 1, 2012

Smith makes mark as Buckeyes' gunner

Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- You wouldn't know it from checking the traditional box score, but Devin Smith was one of Ohio State's top playmakers in its win over Penn State last weekend. In fact, he was named one of the Buckeyes' players of the game.

Despite not recording a catch, the sophomore wide receiver managed to make his mark against the Nittany Lions on special teams, playing the gunner position on OSU's punt coverage team. Smith recorded two first half tackles in the Buckeyes' 35-23 victory, an effort that earned him the team's special teams player of the week award.

"I like it a lot," Smith said of his role as the team's gunner, the player who lines up furthest outside on punt coverage and specializes in covering punts. "We trying to be the best punt team in America and I just go down there as fast as I can and make sure they don't return the ball."

A speedster who spent his first offseason in Columbus running track for the Buckeyes, covering kicks instead of catching touchdowns was unchartered territory to Smith before this season. But first-year OSU coach Urban Meyer knew what he had in the Massillon, Ohio native from the first time he saw him run.

"When he first came in, he saw me run, and he said, 'Oh, you're going to be my gunner on punt,'" Smith recalled. "I've never really done it to this point and I like it."

Smith wasn't as reluctant to embrace his new role so much as he was unsure of how to carry out a responsibility that he had never held before in his football career. But the Buckeyes' coach gave Smith directions that were simple enough, letting him know that all he had to do was utilize his speed in helping force opponents fair catch the ball rather than return it.

"When he first told, I was like, 'Wow, I've never had to cover a punt,'" Smith said. "But he just told me to just run down there and make sure they fair catch it every single time, and that's what I've done."

Smith's effort played a key role in the Buckeyes' holding the Nittany Lions to an average of 3.8 yards per return following OSU punts on Saturday. Buckeyes' wide receivers coach Zach Smith said that the skills that have helped make Devin the Buckeyes' leader in receiving yards and touchdowns this season, have carried over to his success on punt coverage.

"Being a gunner on punt is no different than playing receiver and running a go-route, you just need to get off a press man, and get to the returner," the OSU assistant said. "I think he did an unbelievable job on Saturday. He's really done a great job all year."

Having spent five years as a graduate assistant and quality control assistant under Meyer at Florida, and the coach of the Buckeyes' punt return/block team, the 28-year-old Smith is well aware of the importance of special teams in football. That's one of the reasons why he had no hesitation when it came to putting his top playmaker on the field, even if he meant he would have to potentially tackle a returner.

"Being that he's one of the fastest guys on the team, if he wasn't the gunner, I'd be disappointed in him," Zach said. "He's been phenomenal at it and I was fired up for him to do that. I'd like to think I taught him that, the plays he made making tackles."

If there's one thing that the OSU assistant needs to be worried about in-terms of Smith's success, it's the growing confidence that he's gaining from finding ways to make plays on units other than offense. Zach joked that he was starting to get worried about losing Devin to the OSU defense, and the wideout claims that he's already being recruited to make a position switch by defensive line coach Mike Vrabel.

"After I made that tackle, Coach Vrabel was like, 'Man, you need to play corner or safety,'" Smith revealed with a laugh. "It was kind of funny."



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