If you were a backup on Ohio State’s football team last year, you probably didn’t see much playing time after September.
After the Buckeyes played their backups in the second half of three of their first four games in 2018 – a 77-31 win over Oregon State, a 52-3 win over Rutgers and a 49-6 win over Tulane – they didn’t win any of their final 10 games of the year by more than 23 points. As a result, none of those games got to the point where the Buckeyes ever fully pulled their starters off the field.
With the exception of a few positions like defensive line and wide receiver where the Buckeyes rotated regularly, that meant that many of Ohio State’s second-team players barely saw the field at all in the final three months of the season. Second-string quarterback Tate Martell played just 11 snaps in the final 10 games. The second-team offensive line never played after the first four games. Some of the Buckeyes’ promising young players, even freshmen who burned redshirts playing on special teams, never had the opportunity to show what they could do by the time they were truly ready to play.
So far this season, though, the Buckeyes have been able to play their second-teamers at every position in just about every game.
Ohio State has won all of its first eight games of the season by at least 24 points, and the Buckeyes have had decisive leads before halftime in most of those games, giving them ample opportunities to get their backups on the field. With the exception of its 34-10 win over Michigan State, in which Justin Fields and the rest of the starters played all four quarters, Ohio State’s second-team offenses and defenses have both played at least one series in each of the Buckeyes’ other seven games.
The Buckeyes have played even deeper into their depth chart in some of their most lopsided wins, like their 76-5 win over Miami (Ohio), in which they put a whopping 97 players into the game.
All those opportunities Ohio State has had to get its reserves on the field in blowout victories could prove to be valuable experience for the players down the stretch of the season, when the Buckeyes could potentially need to call upon some of them to play more significant roles in actually competitive games.
“I think it's really important because I think you know what you have with some of those guys, where you could be at this point of the year, a guy goes down or a guy is out in the game and you have to put a guy in, you don't even know what you have,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said this week. “And so, I think we have a good feeling of where everybody’s at on our team. It's almost three-deep because those guys have got so many reps in games.”
At some positions, Ohio State’s backups have already played more snaps in eight games this year than players in equivalent depth chart positions did in all 14 games last year.
For example, backup center Harry Miller has played 89 offensive snaps while playing exclusively with the second-team offensive line this season, while Josh Myers played only 72 offensive snaps – even though he appeared in every game on special teams – as the backup center last year.
Another example: Cornerbacks Amir Riep and Sevyn Banks have both played 73 defensive snaps while playing almost exclusively with the second-team defense this year, while Ohio State never played any cornerbacks outside the top four in its rotation (Kendall Sheffield, Damon Arnette, Jeff Okudah, Shaun Wade) in the final 10 games of last year.
Second-string quarterback Chris Chugunov hasn’t played as many total snaps this year (67) as Martell did last year (91) yet, but he has already played in more games (seven compared to six), and those repetitions are important for him because Justin Fields typically takes the vast majority of reps with the first-team offense in practice.
At every position on the field, the Buckeyes have been able to get players in the game who typically don’t see snaps with the starters, and they’ve been able to do so almost every week. That allows those players to gain valuable experience that could help them for when they are called upon to play bigger roles in the future, while it also allows the coaches to evaluate them in game action and determine which backups are ready for more playing time as needed.
“I think that’s the biggest thing is you have a great feel for what they can do, because in practice sometimes you have an idea but then you put them in the game and it doesn’t quite translate,” Day said. “I think with this, and the amount of reps that some of these guys have had, you know what you have. So if there’s a strength there, great. If there’s a weakness there, if it’s a liability, whatever that is, you can kind of put that together and you know what you have. But certainly, depth’s been a strength for us.”
“I think we have a good feeling of where everybody’s at on our team. It's almost three-deep because those guys have got so many reps in games.”– Ryan Day on the value of backups getting playing time
That’s already been beneficial at times this year – like when Nicholas Petit-Frere was called upon to start at left tackle in place of Thayer Munford, with Joshua Alabi also sidelined by injury, at Northwestern – and with as many as seven games left to play for the Buckeyes, it’s likely they will need to call on other players who have primarily played in lopsided game situations to take on more important roles before the season is done.
How frequently the Buckeyes have been able to turn the game over to their backups in the third or fourth quarter has also influenced their redshirt decisions this year – particularly the decision they recently made to not redshirt freshman offensive tackle Dawand Jones – because they’ve been able to get those freshmen who aren’t redshirting enough playing time to justify using a year of eligibility.
Beyond wide receiver Garrett Wilson and defensive end Zach Harrison, who have both worked their way into the first-team rotations at their positions, wide receiver Jameson Williams has also played in eight games while center Harry Miller has played in seven and running back Marcus Crowley and linebacker Craig Young have each played in six. Jones has only played in four games, but the Buckeyes expect to continue playing him as a backup offensive tackle when they can, and he’ll burn his redshirt eligibility in his next game appearance.
“We had to make some decisions on some of those guys playing in their fifth game or not, and Dawand was one of them,” Day said. “We just felt like because they’ve had such an opportunity to play in this thing, and as we go on to the end of the season, we feel like there’s going to be different opportunities or depth situations that we may need those guys. So we decided to play them.
“I think these are great quality reps to go upon, even leading into next year,” Day added. “So it gives them confidence I think going into the future, but also I think it’s creating depth for us, and you can see that in all phases … the more those guys can play, the better off our team is.”
If all goes according to plan, Ohio State’s backups should continue to see playing time in at least the next two games – against Maryland and Rutgers, who both have losing records this year – before the Buckeyes finish the regular season with what should be two of their most competitive games of the year against Penn State and Michigan.