Both teams had incredibly talented return games this season. One had a better average on kickoffs, while the other averaged more yards on punt returns. Neither team relied solely on one player to do the heavy lifting on returns, instead rotating the responsibility in a committee approach. But there is one key guy on each side that will help determine which team will better flip the field when they get the ball back from their opponent.
For Oregon, two of their solid return men are unavailable for the national championship. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, the team’s All-American cornerback, was sidelined during pre-Rose Bowl practices with a knee injury that ended his season. A similar fate befell speedy receiver Devon Allen’s knee on the opening kickoff against Florida State. Ekpre-Olomu had fielded five punts during the season, while Allen took eight kickoffs for a 26.1-yard average. The main men for the Ducks will now be true freshman Charles Nelson, bedecked in De’Anthony Thomas’ old number and the team’s leader in combined return yardage. The rookie averaged more than 20 yards per kickoff return on 18 kicks, and took two of his 11 punt returns for touchdowns while averaging more than 15 yards per punt. Thomas Tyner, who broke out in the backfield during the Rose Bowl, could also see an increased role after averaging nearly 22 yards per kickoff return, while steady jack-of-all-trades veteran Byron Marshall often goes back on kickoffs.
Ohio State likewise suffered injuries within its return game. Dontre Wilson, the steady sophomore H-back who led the team in kickoff return yardage and was second in punt return production, was lost to a broken foot against Michigan State. In his place has stepped Jalin Marshall on punts and Curtis Samuel on kickoffs. Marshall, a redshirt freshman, averaged 12 yards per punt return and was the only Buckeye to take any kick return for a touchdown this season. Samuel, a true freshman, has averaged just over 20 yards per kickoff return — but averaged just 11.5 yards on two returns against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, a team that ranked five spots behind the Ducks in kickoff return defense. Meyer and Coombs can also send out true freshman Noah Brown or Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Greene, while tailback Ezekiel Elliott has also been used once on kickoff returns.
Oregon ranked 12th in punt return average but just 71st on kickoffs, while Ohio State finished 28th in kickoff return yardage and 18th on punts. But a lot of the Buckeyes’ production in those season stats comes from the injured Wilson, while a smaller portion of the Ducks’ return yardage was generated by Allen and Ekpre-Olomu. Both teams have some threats fielding punts and kickoffs, but Oregon has a wider array of dangerous players on its roster to utilize in the return game.