Ohio State aims to break seal in return game in 2022
Coming in as the No. 1 receiver in the 2021 class, Emeka Egbuka realized how different college football would be incredibly quickly.
It’s a lot faster, he said, something he knows a lot of newcomers say, It’s about mastering your assignment, while still knowing the whole play, having an understanding of the big picture each time you’re on the field.
And in his freshman season, there wasn’t a place for Egbuka where that mentality shone more clearly than in the return game.
“It’s probably one of the harder things I’ve had to do because you just get past that first line of defenders and there’s 12 more waiting for you when you only thought there was 11 on the field,” the wide receiver joked. “You get to the 50-yard line and you realize you still got 50 more to go.”
To Parker Fleming, that’s what the return game is for.
While he wants Ohio State’s best players to get as many touches as possible, the special teams coordinator said it’s a showcase opportunity for guys that are close to making an impact elsewhere. It’s a chance for young “game breakers,” like Egbuka, to have the ball in their hands in situations that matter.
The No. 1 receiver in the 2021 class started his freshman campaign as one of many options at kickoff returner, joining TreVeyon Henderson, who began the season as Fleming’s primary option, along with Xavier Johnson and Julian Fleming.
But Egbuka soon took ownership of a role that hasn’t had too much success in recent memory for the Buckeyes, leading the team with 580 yards on 20 returns for an average of 29 yards per touch, coming close multiple times to recording Ohio State’s first kickoff return for a touchdown in 11 years.
“There’s a couple I thought I was in the clear,” Egbuka said. “Definitely going to make those into touchdowns this year.”
Parker Fleming saw what Egbuka could do in the return game, something the he saw even before the season started when the freshman was on the practice field during fall camp.
He wasn’t surprised with what Egbuka could do, even though the special teams coordinator knew that more work needed to be done to break the seal.
“Close doesn’t count, but I think he was really close to breaking a couple,” Fleming said. “The truth is, you got to keep plugging. Sometimes it’s one cut, one missed tackle, one slight adjustment we have to make and finish a little bit stronger, a little tougher, we’ll see.”
While Egbuka could be the main weapon at kick returner, Parker Fleming hinted that the incoming sophomore wide receiver will probably not be the only option.
“In some situations, it’s more about making sure you spread out your touches to the right guys,” Fleming said. “If you have the opportunity for multiple players that are close to or equal, then you want to make sure you get guys touches.”
The same can be said about the punt returner spot.
In spring practice, Julian Fleming and Jaxon Smith-Njigba were seen rotating in as second- and third-string options, while safety Cameron Martinez was first up in return drills, someone, Parker Fleming said, who has all the tools necessary for making an impact.
“He caught balls all spring. He showed flashes,” the Ohio State special teams coordinator said. “Obviously, he was a high school quarterback that was dynamic with the ball in his hands. He had the one pick-six last year, which kind of showed off. He joked with me after that catch, he’s like, ‘Put me back there.’ So I told the different punt returners, ‘Watch out. Here he comes.’ So that’s something he keeps working at and I definitely think he’s in the mix.”
That’s the beauty of the return position, Fleming feels. It’s an opportunity for a player to show what he can do even if it’s not his turn to show it at his respective positions.
And the special teams coordinator knows that there’s a handful of players chomping at the bit to have that opportunity to make an impact, to break the seal in a room the Buckeyes have not had much success in.
“I can’t tell you where we end up, but we do have a lot of options,” Fleming said. “And I’m excited about it.”