COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -It's a statistic that rankles Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, a man not easily rankled. His Buckeyes were dead last in the Big Ten a year ago in kickoff returns and he's determined that won't happen again.
So Wednesday's kick scrimmage at Ohio Stadium took on particular importance.
Asked at the start of August workouts if he were giving special attention to special teams, Tressel said, ``Absolutely. We were last in the world in kickoff returns. ... We're emphasizing that.''
The Buckeyes weren't last in the world, although they were pretty close. They were 117th of the 119 bowl-level teams in kickoff returns, averaging just 17.65 yards. Only New Mexico State (17.45) and Northern Illinois (17.29) were worse, and they combined to go 6-19 as compared to Ohio State's 11-2.
It's obvious that there's plenty of room for improvement.
Not so long ago, Ohio State had one of the very best kickoff units with Ted Ginn Jr. prepared to take back almost every one that came his way. Ginn, now in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins, famously went the distance with the opening kickoff in the national championship game two years ago (and was injured by a teammate in the ensuing celebration, thus going the distance on his last collegiate play). Things have gone downhill ever since.
Ginn averaged 24.4 yards in 2006, 29.6 as a sophomore and 20.0 in 2004. He had two kickoff returns for TDs, along with seven punt returns for scores in his career.
There were 56 teams in Division I last fall that returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Ohio State didn't have one.
``I don't know that we ever put all of the blocks together that you need to spring one,'' Tressel said on Wednesday after the kickers and returners were on display for more than an hour. ``It's probably a reminder of how good the guy was before.''
A year ago, backup wide receiver Ray Small handled 22 of the Buckeyes' 34 kickoff returns and averaged 17.8 yards per attempt. He shared punt return duties with Brian Hartline.
Now running backs Brandon Saine and Dan ``Boom'' Herron, both of whom dazzled in spring workouts, are the deep men on kickoffs, with Small and Hartline the top guys on punt returns.
Most fans pin any problems on the players who handle the returns, but punter A.J. Trapasso said a lot of different aspects must come together for a successful return.
``It's not just the returners, although that's all that most people ever see,'' he said. ``We need to tighten up. We obviously know our numbers have been down, and we want to improve on that.''
Although returns weren't the central focus on Wednesday, Devon Torrence did bring one kick back 31 yards.
The highlight of the practice wasn't necessarily a bright spot for the special teams. Trapasso faked a punt, rolled right and had his pass deflected at the line with the ball falling into the hands of freshman running back Jermil Martin. He rumbled and tumbled 35 yards for the touchdown to give the Gray squad its margin of victory.
Tressel is also troubled by other special-teams numbers.
Ohio State was sixth-stingiest team in the nation last season when it came to allowing yards on punt returns (just 4.74 per return), but was way down the list in most other statistics.
The Buckeyes were 58th in punt returns and had just one for a TD (Hartline, a school-record 90 yards, against Kent State). Another KSU, Kansas State, had five punt-return touchdowns.
Ohio State was also 33rd in net punting and 57th in kickoff return defense.
No wonder Tressel said he and his staff had meetings about how to improve on special teams even before they opened practice this August.
``Coach says special teams win championships,'' said Aaron Pettrey, who'll handle kickoffs for the second year in a row. ``Last year we didn't play as well as we could. Our blocking and other things we could have done better on kickoff returns and things like that. So he's stressing those right now.''
Also bothersome is that even though kicker Ryan Pretorius converted 18 of 23 field-oal attempts, including a 50-yarder, he also had four kicks blocked - including one by LSU's Ricky Jean-Francois in the Bowl Championship Series title game.
Pretorius converted a 52-yarder and didn't get a kick blocked, but he missed a couple of other attempts in a nearly deserted stadium on Wednesday.
``When you have a not-so-good day, it's kind of a wake-up call,'' Pretorius said. ``I hate having those days, but I'm glad I have them because it allows me to wake up and know I'm not that great and it takes you back to square one. You focus on the small things so you don't make those mistakes in a game.''

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