The Columbus Dispatch
Buckeyes WR Harrison practicing at punt returner
Toe-tapping sideline catches, leaping grabs. Marvin Harrison Jr. hauled in a lot of passes over a prolific sophomore season that saw him become Ohio State’s first unanimous Allamerican wide receiver.
Could he add to his playmaking repertoire by returning punts?
It’s at least a possibility. In portions of the first two spring practices that were open to reporters this week, Harrison led a line of receivers fielding punts.
But Harrison on Thursday downplayed the likelihood of him adding the role on special teams for next fall.
“There’s a good chance I won’t be back there at any point during the season,” Harrison said, “but in an emergency situation, if I need to go back there, I think I can.”
The Buckeyes are putting out a handful of receivers to return punts in practices while Emeka Egbuka, who handled them last season, is unavailable as he rehabs an undisclosed injury, using his absence as an opportunity to expand their options for returners.
The rotation also included Jayden Ballard, Kaleb Brown and Carnell Tate.
“We want to build a good depth of guys,” said offensive coordinator and receivers coach Brian Hartline, “because it’s amazing how quickly you can get a guy tweaked and he’s not back there. You have to make sure you have a good depth of guys.”
Harrison lacks experience as a punt returner at Ohio State or in high school at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia.
He said he primarily sees the reps as a way for him to improve his ability to track the ball in the air. It’s little surprise Harrison, devoted to snatching passes off Monarc’s Seeker machine following practices, would see an avenue to improve his pass catching.
The sight of a 6-foot-4 receiver returning punts is less than typical, but the staff doesn’t see it out of the question for Harrison, who has quick feet and remains a sharp route runner at his size, among other physical traits.
“He can do anything he wanted to do,” Hartline said. “A lot of guys can do a lot of things if they want to do it. But we’re going to identify the best guy to do it.”
After Harrison debuted as a punt returner in practice on Tuesday, coach Ryan Day praised his fielding of the ball and remarked that he did a nice job.
“He’s got really good depth perception,” Day said. “If we need him back there, we’ll use him.”
Hartline thought he could provide them with at least be an option in instances of injuries.
“When you have a situation, he may be one of those guys on that list,” Hartline said.
The Buckeyes have not hesitated to send out their top receivers to return punts. Egbuka, who returned 11 punts for 75 yards last season, stepped up as the primary returner after star slot receiver Jaxon Smith-njigba injured his left hamstring in the opening win over Notre Dame.
It was Smith-njigba who took over returning punts for Garrett Wilson, another 1,000-yard receiver for the Buckeyes, the previous season.
Considering their experiences handling roles returning in addition to receiving, Harrison said he didn’t have much concern about the possibility of getting hurt.
“Any time you can put a dynamic player back there, you can change the game, especially on special teams,” Harrison said. “I wouldn’t say it’s really an injury risk. Emeka did it last year. Garrett’s done it. Jaxon’s done it.”
Rather than being exposed to potential injury, Harrison ultimately saw it as Egbuka’s role.
“I think Emeka’s going to do it again this year,” he said. “I’m just back there for practice.”