The beard on Ryan Day’s face covered up the usually rosy cheeks of Ohio State’s coach.
As he led his team through Monday morning’s spring practice, the first of 2020, it fit the atmosphere.
Behind the facial hair was a second-year head coach no longer faced with questions of whether he belonged. Those got answered at some point during last season’s ride that featured a demolition of Michigan, undefeated regular season, Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff berth that led to an extension that’ll keep him under contract through 2026. Curiosity about how the Buckeyes would transition from the Urban Meyer era to whatever followed have long left the discourse surrounding their head coach.
This is, unequivocally, Day’s football team.
At 40 years old, he’s still on the young side of most head coaches, especially at a big-time program. In his second year ever as a head coach at any level, he remains one of the least experienced men leading a powerhouse. Yet as he takes Ohio State into his second season as a head coach, he no longer seems like a young pup enveloped in uncertainty.
As the beard hints, Day’s now a seasoned veteran. That’s what’ll happen to somebody whose first year ends in a heartbreaking Fiesta Bowl loss, just a game from the national championship.
“We felt like we got a good foundation set underneath us this past season,” Day said. “But we didn't reach all our goals, and so there's still a lot of work to be done.”
Just like Day, almost all of the highest producing returners – including 10 starters – stepped into by far the largest roles of their careers in 2019 and suddenly find themselves as the team’s grizzled veterans as spring practice begins. This, of course, happens every year. Players come; players leave; players get replaced. It’s the endless cycle of every level of college football.
Yet for a first-year head coach who had to replace a legendary figure in the profession then led his team to the precipice of everything they worked to accomplish, the players who contributed to what happened in 2019 and are back in 2020 round out the bedrock of what Ohio State will be built upon this fall.
Justin Fields, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, didn’t have a Day-esque beard as spring camp opened. Yet he and a collection of his teammates – similarly to Day – all went from unproven talents to the players an expected national championship contender will be built around.
Fields went from a first-year starter with a high ceiling to a Heisman Trophy finalist with 41 passing touchdowns and three interceptions. Chris Olave caught 49 passes for 849 yards and 12 touchdowns after snagging 12 passes as a freshman. Garrett Wilson shined as a freshman, grabbing 30 receptions and five touchdowns. Luke Farrell garnered All-Big Ten honors for the first time. First-year starting guard Wyatt Davis turned in a first-team All-American season. Second-year starter Thayer Munford got named to his first All-Big Ten team, and first-year starting center Josh Myers was also an All-Big Ten performer.
Jonathon Cooper became a first-time team captain. Tommy Togiai went from being the strongest player in the weight room to joining two fifth-year seniors in the rotation at nose tackle. Tyler Friday, Tyreke Smith and Zach Harrison found themselves in big roles for the first time in their respective careers last season. Pete Werner became an integral part of the defense in a breakout season, Tuf Borland was voted a second-team captain as a fourth-year junior and Baron Browning became a rotational middle linebacker. Shaun Wade turned into a lockdown slot cornerback.
And now they’re back. All of them.
Some remain potential-filled, unfinished products – nobody quite knows how big of a leap various younger contributors will take in the offseason – and others are more grizzled. Together, though, after the spotlight shined on them for largely the first time in Day’s first full season as a head coach, they’re the structure on which the 2020 Buckeyes will be built.
“I think this time last year, when you look at (Jeff) Okudah and Chase Young and J.K. Dobbins, they were young players,” Day said. “But they had such an impact on the field they became good leaders. That helped them along the way and springboarded them into leadership. And I think there will be some guys like that this spring as well.”
Like Day, most of the returning contributors enter 2020 seasons after having their largest, most important roles in 2019.
They also went through the gauntlet of a full offseason followed by a full season together. It ended prematurely, too, with a Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson that surely put a little bit of gray in each of their proverbial beards.
“We're going to do everything we can to keep that game in the back of our minds so next year we come back even stronger,” Day told the Schottenstein Center crowd at the halftime of an Ohio State basketball game on Jan. 23 in his first public appearance after the loss.
They're not so young, so inexperienced anymore, and they're coming for what they fell short of last season: A national title.