Scrimmage puts spotlight on Ohio State kickers

Published 2:23 am Friday, August 21, 2009

COLUMBUS — For most of August, Ohio State’s place-kickers and punters labor in relative obscurity, practicing apart from their teammates and doing whatever it is kickers and punters must do to get ready for another season.

The annual kick scrimmage — both dreaded and anticipated by the participants — changes all of that.

‘‘I love these things and I hate ’em at the same time,’’ said senior Aaron Pettrey, the heir apparent to replace Ryan Pretorius as the Buckeyes kicker. ‘‘I mean, I’m glad I never have to do one again. I think you feel more pressure out here than in a game. I like ’em, but I’m glad it’s my last one.’’

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Ohio State’s kick scrimmage on Wednesday was particularly illuminating since coach Jim Tressel must find replacements for both Pretorius and punter A.J. Trapasso.

Tressel, of course, calls the punt ‘‘the most important play in football.’’ So by extension, the punter must be the most important player on the field. But the hunt for Trapasso’s replacement remains a casting call, almost the opposite of what’s taking place among those trying out for kicker.

Pretorius, a 29-year-old South African who got the job after sending Tressel a homemade video of his kicking prowess, converted 15-of-19 field goal attempts a year ago and 38-of-39 extra-points. Pettrey handled kickoffs and occasionally was place-kicker — he was 7-of-8 on field goals, including a 54-yarder.

He has a firm grip on the job, even though he doesn’t think so.

‘‘Right now I might be in third in the kicking battle,’’ said Pettrey, who still speaks with a thick Southern drawl owing to his hometown of Raceland, Ky.

Although the coaching staff hasn’t announced a pecking order at place-kicker, it would be an earthshaking event for Pettrey to not have the job in front of redshirt freshman Ben Buchanan and senior Devin Barclay, who walked on a year ago.

Buchanan, in particular, got a kick out of the kick scrimmage.

‘‘It was a busy day, from kickoffs to field goals to punts,’’ said the three-time all-state kicker from suburban Columbus, who also punts. ‘‘Probably not my best day, but not my worst day either. Just kind of a lot of fun, that’s what the kick scrimmage is about. I had some kicks that I’m really going to look at in film and study hard. Some kicks I want back and some kicks I was pretty proud of.’’

Buchanan even completed a pass on a fake kick, further enlivening the scrimmage played in cavernous Ohio Stadium, empty except for players, coaches, a few interested friends of the program and some reporters.

This was the first time Barclay had ever really faced the heat of being one of the featured performers in the kickers’ version of Can You Top This?

‘‘They put a big emphasis on it. It’s like kind of our biggest day,’’ he said. ‘‘You definitely feel (the pressure).’’

Pettrey converted a 48-yard field goal on the last play of the scrimmage to give the Gray squad a 27-24 win over the Scarlet. The losing squad had to walk the half-mile or so back to the Woody Hayes practice facility — while the winners rode by in triumph on buses.

Even though he called himself No. 3 on the depth chart, Pettrey conceded he wasn’t far from the top spot.

‘‘Ben and Devin are a little bit more accurate than me right now,’’ he said. ‘‘But we’re all right there together. We’re all pushing each other.’’

That’s not the case at punter, where Trapasso hogged almost all the chances over the last four seasons. Now a sub with the Tennessee Titans, Trapasso had 203 of Ohio State’s 205 kicks for a 41.0 average over that span.

Jon Thoma, the only Buckeye to punt other than Trapasso over those four years, is currently the front-runner for the job. But he had a bad scrimmage, which may have opened the door for Buchanan to take over as punter and backup placekicker.

‘‘It was one of those days where you warm up and everything goes right, you expect it to go right, then you go out there and you swing (your leg) hard and you just don’t make perfect contact with the ball,’’ said Thoma, a former walk-on who is a fifth-year senior. ‘‘If I would have punted how I warmed up, we’d be having a different conversation right now.’’

Buchanan is pleased just to be in the punting picture after spending all of last season watching others get all the playing time.

‘‘I’m excited, whatever my role’s going to be, whether that’s starting or whether that’s backing up (someone else) and learning another year,’’ he said. ‘‘Last year learning under A.J. and Aaron and Ryan, I did get a lot better. I’ve improved. I still think I can improve.’’

With just over two weeks left until the season opener against Navy, improvement is the one thing Ohio State’s coaches seek.