Ohio State’s season opener is now less than three weeks away.
That still might feel like three weeks too many, given that it’s October and college football teams from six other conferences are already playing games. But the fact that there are now less than 21 days until Ohio State’s first game against Nebraska is consequential, because from this point forward, any player who tests positive for COVID-19 will miss at least one game.
Given that, Ryan Day is telling his players – all of them, regardless of whether they are projected starters, walk-ons or somewhere in between – that they have to be ready to contribute this season, recognizing how quickly things could change over the course of the season.
“With our team of 120 guys, that’s everybody there, we’re going to need them all,” Day said Friday. “Typically, as you get to this time of year, you start to kind of just split up into scout team. That’s not the case (this year). Guys need to be engaged, they need to be ready to go. People talk about the next man up mentality, but it’s gonna take all of us to get this done. So we’re not really changing how we practice, but it’s just more of an awareness and more of an accountability across the board.”
While Day and his fellow coaches are preaching vigilance to their players, and the Big Ten’s daily antigen testing could improve Ohio State’s chances of avoiding the sizable outbreaks that have forced other teams to postpone games or play without a substantial portion of players, they can’t eliminate the risks of players contracting COVID-19; they can only mitigate them. And once the season gets going, they have to be prepared for the reality that they could lose any player at any time for three or more games.
That’s true in any season because of the possibility of injuries, but COVID-19 undeniably reduces the risk of losing players unexpectedly in between games, and the Big Ten’s protocol leaves no wiggle room for players to return to action within 21 days of a confirmed positive case.
“Honestly, it’s scary, because it can ruin your whole season just like that, one day with one exposure,” Day said. “And I think sometimes, the coaches and the players look at me like, ‘Coach, I know, we have to be smart.’ But if you get tired of it and you take a deep breath, it’ll get you real fast. So I’m trying to be really good at staying on top of it.”
Those challenges are compounded by the fact that Ohio State’s coaches did not have a full, normal offseason with their players, and that they won’t have any tuneup games early in the season, as the Buckeyes jump directly into conference play with a marquee matchup against Penn State set for Week 2. If they lose key players going into their first games, they could be forced to place entirely unproven players in significant roles for important contests as they reshuffle their depth chart.
“You try to do the best you can, for those who maybe don’t have a body of work, over these next few weeks, to try to get some experience and figure out what you can expect when they go on the field,” Day said. “Before a conference schedule, if you have a few games ahead of time, you have a little bit better feel of what to expect. We don’t have that luxury this year. So we’ll just work through it and try to figure out best ways to create a game environment in practice and go from there.”
The other potential challenge the Buckeyes have to prepare for is the possibility that they could also be without members of their coaching staff if they test positive for COVID-19. All coaches are being tested daily, too, and they would also be forced to spend time away from the team if they test positive. The Big Ten has not publicly specified what the timetable would be for a coach to return, but it’s presumable it will be at least 14 days, which means Ohio State has to have contingency plans in place to fill in for any coach who might miss time, all the way up to Day himself.
Day didn’t specify on Friday who would serve as the acting head coach if he had to miss any games. Because the Buckeyes’ coaching efforts are already collaborative in all phases of the game, however, he believes they will be equipped to adapt if any coaches are forced to quarantine.
“Between Kevin (Wilson) and I on offense, we call it together, and it’s the same thing with Kerry (Coombs) and Greg (Mattison) on defense, so we feel pretty good there,” Day said. “If something ever happened to (special teams coordinator) Matt Barnes, I think (quality control coach) Parker Fleming could step into that role and we could put him there. So we have really good contingency plans, and we just keep talking about them, and when they come up, we’ll address them.”
Ohio State players and coaches alike have had to make sacrifices off the field to try to keep themselves healthy so they can be on the field, and the threat of potential COVID-19 cases could create challenges that the Buckeyes have to deal with all season long. But they’re certainly not alone in doing so, as all Big Ten teams are being governed by the same protocols while many teams that have already played have had to play without players and coaches who tested positive.
So while the path to the national championship Ohio State covets is littered with more potholes than ever, the Buckeyes know their opponents will also be dealing with the unusual realities of this season.
“It’s a challenge, for sure. But it’s the same challenge for everybody,” Day said. “And we’re all under the same rules and the same situations and scenarios, so we just have to handle it better than everybody else.
“I’m not saying it’s easy, it certainly isn’t, but it’s like going to play a game in rainy weather. Both teams have to deal with it. The team that deals with it the best is going to prevail. And that’s kind of the way we have to approach this. It’s not perfect, but we just have to handle it better than our opponent.”