With only three weeks between this year’s conference championship games and the College Football Playoff semifinals, Ohio State coach Ryan Day hasn’t had much time to take a deep breath.
If it was up to him, he likely would have spent most of the last week-and-a-half preparing for the Buckeyes’ upcoming game against Clemson on Dec. 28, and he did as much as he could. But he also had to spend nearly all of last week on the road recruiting – until the dead period began this week – all the while also traveling to Charlotte, Atlanta and New York to support his star players like Chase Young and Justin Fields at national awards ceremonies. Then, the Buckeyes had to put their final touches on their preparation for the early signing period, which began Wednesday, when they signed 24 players for the recruiting class of 2020.
For a first-year head coach who is still experiencing much of this for the first time, that was an eye-opening experience.
“I haven't even had time to think at all,” Day said on Monday. “This last week was the craziest week I've ever been a part of. We have these midyear guys coming in, and we had four-and-a-half days to get there. And then there's different award ceremonies, and things all over the country. It was crazy. And then only have three weeks to get ready for this game. Really, when you put recruiting into it, you have two weeks to play this game.”
Day and his assistant coaches had no choice but to prioritize recruiting last week. While teams that weren’t playing in conference championship games had two weeks to hit the road and make in-home visits to recruits during the contact period that spanned from Dec. 1-14, Ohio State spent the first week of that contact period preparing to play Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, which meant Day had to start making visits almost immediately after the Buckeyes’ playoff seeding was revealed two Sundays ago.
That work on the recruiting trail paid off, as the Buckeyes signed all but two of their commits (defensive backs Clark Phillips and Cameron Martinez, whose recruitments were affected by the departure of Ohio State co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Jeff Hafley to Boston College) and also landed four-star quarterback CJ Stroud on Wednesday.
But in a year where there is less time between conference championship weekend and the playoff semifinals than there has ever been before in the CFP era – the time between games has typically been four weeks or closer to four weeks rather than three – it’s put the pressure on Day and his staff to use every minute wisely.
“This game’s on you right now. There’s no time to sit back and think where in the past, there was another week where you could prepare for this game,” Day said. “But you just do the best you can with it. You're not going to be perfect. It’s not going to be perfect. You wish you had another week, but they don't either. So they're dealing with the same situation. We just want to maximize it the best we can to handle it better than they do.”
Because he wasn’t a head coach at the time, Day wasn’t involved in the conversations when the NCAA added a December early signing period to the recruiting calendar in 2017. But after going through the challenges of this past week-and-a-half – which also included losing Hafley, a move Boston College had to make now (though he will continue coaching for the Buckeyes through the playoff) largely because of the early signing period – Day believes there should be further conversations about whether the new format is good for college football.
“However this came down, I’m not sure that they realized what this was going to be like for a coaching staff and a team where you’re playing on the 28th, you play in a Big Ten Championship game, you have one week on the road to go recruit these guys and get out there,” Day said. “There’s possible coaching changes on your staff. You have 14 guys coming at midyear. You have award shows to go to, and then by the way, once you get off the road, you have two weeks to get ready to go play Clemson. That’s a very stressful time. And it is what it is, we’re keeping our head down and we’re going. But I think we have to take a hard look at that.”
“This last week was the craziest week I've ever been a part of.”– Ryan Day on balancing recruiting with playoff preparation
Clemson, which also signed 24 players to its recruiting class of 2020, had to deal with the same circumstances over the past week-and-a-half, so Ohio State isn’t necessarily at any disadvantage in that regard. Video coordinator Joe Stanek loaded film onto the coaches’ iPads as soon as the matchup with Clemson was announced, and they spent whatever time they could watching film while they were on the road.
“That's not easy to do when you're out there recruiting, and you're just running from place to place and airport to airport and award show to award show,” Day said. “But you just do the best you can with it.”
Now that the Buckeyes’ recruiting class of 2020 is nearly complete and no more recruiting visits will be allowed until after the playoff is over, though, Day and his coaching staff can finally turn their full attention to preparing for the Fiesta Bowl.
Ohio State practiced on five of the last six days and treated the start of this week like a game week before giving the players the opportunity to go home and see their families for a few days. Day felt that was important for the players to get a few days off and have the chance for holiday celebrations with their families before they reconvene on Sunday to travel to Arizona, where they will spend all of next week preparing for their biggest game of the season yet.
“We had three really good days of practice, had a good day of practice today, but they need to go home for three days and get away, and then meet us in Arizona on Sunday and then have a great week of practice,” Day said Wednesday. “They get away from us for a few days, it seems like a long time, but they get home with their families, they deserve it, they need to get some rest, and then see us in Arizona.”
Once the Buckeyes arrive at the Fiesta Bowl, they’ll prepare as if it was a normal game week, even though it will come with the pageantry of a bowl game and the stakes of a national championship game berth on the line. Day wants his players to enjoy a few days off to end this week and enjoy the trip out to Arizona next week, but he is confident they will be locked in and ready to go to prepare as hard as they can and play as hard as they can next week, knowing everything that’s on the line.
“Their curfews are going to be a little earlier. We really shouldn't have to enforce those if we have the team we want,” Day said. “While they have to enjoy it, they will enjoy it, it doesn't mean they don't understand what's at stake. I think our guys will do a great job with that.”