For the first time since new head coach Ryan Day announced Ohio State’s new coaching staff for the 2019 season last month, Day and each of the Buckeyes’ five new assistant coaches – quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Mike Yurcich, co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Jeff Hafley, special teams coordinator and assistant secondary coach Matt Barnes and linebackers coach Al Washington – answered questions from the media in a press conference on Wednesday.
While Wednesday’s media availability was held in part because of National Signing Day, most of the questions weren’t about recruiting, as the Buckeyes had only signed one new player (Enokk Vimahi) at the time of Day’s press conference. In nearly two combined hours of meeting with the media, though, Day and the Buckeyes’ new assistant coaches shed light on the changes they could make to the Ohio State football program and talked about many of the Buckeyes’ new players as well, including new quarterback Justin Fields.
To sift through it all, we take a look at the most important items from Wednesday’s interview session that could answer your lingering questions as you look ahead to Ohio State’s 2019 football season.
Fields’ eligibility could be decided in “the next few weeks”
The biggest question surrounding the Ohio State football team entering Wednesday remains unanswered: Will Justin Fields receive a waiver from the NCAA and be immediately eligible to play in 2019? Wednesday did provide some clarity, though, toward when Ohio State expects to receive an answer.
Day said that while Ohio State has not been told by the NCAA when a ruling will be made, the Buckeyes are hoping that they will receive an answer “maybe in the next few weeks.”
“Not really sure right now,” Day said. “Kind of holding our breath.”
Fields, who also met with the media Wednesday, did not discuss specifics about his appeal to the NCAA for immediate eligibility or why he left Georgia, but also expressed hope that the process will wrap up in the near future.
"I'm hoping I'll find out soon so we can get all of this behind us and I can really just focus on the team and getting better,” Fields said.
Day said he has been in daily communication with Justin Kume, Ohio State’s assistant athletic director of compliance, as they have worked through Fields’ appeal to the NCAA.
Both Fields and his coaches would certainly like the situation to be resolved by March 4, which is when spring practice begins, so that they can proceed forward knowing whether or not he will be available to be the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback this year. Day and Yurcich indicated Wednesday, though, that they will coach Fields the same way they always would even if his eligibility remains in limbo.
“There's nothing we can do about it right now,” Day said. “We're trying to control what we can control, wait till the waiver comes back to find out where that's at. That doesn't change anything for him, Matthew (Baldwin) or Chris (Chugunov). Once we find out what it is, we'll go from there.”
Ohio State’s 2019 roster could be set for now
Ohio State’s roster for the 2019 season is now at 85 scholarship players following the signings of Vimahi and Dawand Jones, who did not announce his signing until after Ohio State's media availability.
That means the Buckeyes could be done adding players to their 2019 roster, at least for now.
“We're waiting on one more here later today to make it 85,” Day said. “We'd be maxed out there. We wouldn't be able to add anybody.”
That’s notable, because the Buckeyes have been linked to several players who are still on the graduate transfer market, including Rutgers offensive lineman Jonah Jackson, Texas A&M quarterback Nick Starkel and Tennessee tight end Eli Wolf.
It’s commonplace for college teams to oversign in February, and it’s likely that at least one player will leave the team between now and August, so Day could just be playing coy. He’s not allowed to talk about players the Buckeyes are recruiting who aren’t already signed with Ohio State, so even if he is expecting to sign any of those players, he couldn’t have confirmed it on Wednesday.
He did indicate, though, that the Buckeyes might not add another scholarship quarterback even though they only have three right now.
“You'd like to have four in today's day and age. When you look around the country, not too many teams have four quality quarterbacks on their roster,” Day said. “You have to adjust with what you have.”
Buckeyes will pursue transfers, but not too many
In addition to indicating that the Buckeyes will not have any more available scholarships after Wednesday, Day also said that he believes the NCAA should cap the number of scholarship transfers each school can take at two per calendar year.
Even with the advent of the transfer portal, Day said Wednesday that he still believes the Buckeyes’ priority should be trying to fill as much of their roster as possible with players that they recruit directly out of high school. But he acknowledges that it is an area that director of player personnel Mark Pantoni and his staff are spending more time in now to find players who could potentially fit the Buckeyes’ short-term needs.
“It's ever-evolving. To say where it's going to be in two to five years, I don't know that. We have to evolve with the times to be competitive. We need to be involved with that,” Day said. “It might be one of those things down the road where we have to have a sign and designate part of our recruiting department just towards that. We have to make sure we're adapting with that.”
Hafley’s cornerbacks will look back for the ball
Of all the complaints that Ohio State voiced about the Buckeyes’ defense last season, one of the biggest was that the Buckeyes’ cornerbacks did not turn back and look for the football in the air.
The notion that cornerbacks should look back for the football is not nearly as cut-and-dried as many fans think it is, and the idea that not turning for the football leads to more pass interference penalties isn’t always accurate, either. Hafley wanted to send a clear message to Ohio State fans on Wednesday, though, that his defensive backs will be taught to look back for the football.
“We are going to work on turning and looking and trying to intercept the football when we're in man,” Hafley promised in an animated response. “Now, there's certain parts of the field where it's not good to do that. So if we don't do it in a game, it might be a certain part of the field. But I promise you, come and watch individual (periods in practice), we'll turn and look for the ball.”
Jeff Hafley's answer about whether he wants Ohio State's cornerbacks to turn and look for the ball was tremendous. pic.twitter.com/gmp395udR1— Colin Hass-Hill (@chasshill) February 6, 2019
Another criticism levied against Ohio State’s defensive coaches last season was their stubbornness in almost exclusively playing their cornerbacks in press man coverage, even when it wasn’t working. Hafley said Wednesday, though, that he expects the Buckeyes to use a variety of different coverage schemes in different situations.
“I'm a big believer in playing press, but I also believe you have to change it up,” Hafley said. “So we'll be some press, we'll be some off, we'll be a little bit of everything. It's a good question, because I know how much they've pressed here. But we'll continue to do some of that, and we'll do some other stuff, as well.”
Defensive coaches excited to work together
With only defensive line coach Larry Johnson returning from last year’s Ohio State coaching staff, another big question going into Wednesday’s media availability was how the Buckeyes’ new defensive coaches would all mesh together. Mattison’s role in terms of position-coaching responsibility is not defined by his title, and both Hafley and Barnes are considered to be secondary coaches, leaving some questions about who will be doing what.
Mattison, the oldest coach on the Buckeyes’ new staff at 69 years old, joked that he will be “the greatest young assistant coach you've ever seen,” helping out in any area needed. He’s been Michigan’s defensive line coach for the last four years, so he told Johnson that he is willing to be his assistant defensive line coach, helping out wherever Johnson can most use assistance. Mattison, who was also previously the linebackers coach and defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens, said he also expects to spend a lot of time working with that position.
“I'll be with the ‘backers a lot,” Mattison said. “Al Washington will do a tremendous job with them, but there's two inside ‘backers, and then there's sometimes an outside linebacker, which is a different position, and that's where I can help with that.”
As for the secondary, Barnes said he would defer to Hafley when asked whether the cornerbacks and safeties would be in separate meeting rooms this year – as they were previously – but indicated that both he and Hafley planned to work together in coaching all of them because they want their defensive backs to be on the same page.
“Coach Hafley and I both feel strongly that in the secondary, I think sometimes as much as as coaches we all want to be involved and we all want to have input, I think sometimes you've got to be careful about having too many voices in the secondary,” Barnes said. “There's so much communication that goes on between the corners and the safeties and the nickels and everything else that if they're hearing it, even just literal little things and verbiage and things like that, if it's not said on the same – if everybody is not on the same page in the back end, that's how you see catastrophe on the back end.”