When Ohio State coach Ryan Day met with the media on National Signing Day in early February, he indicated the Buckeyes would “simulate as many games as possible” this spring to attempt to make up for the reps they lost in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After discussions with the rest of his coaching staff over the past month-and-a-half, however, Day is pulling back on that plan a bit.
Yes, Ohio State will still be looking to get its players as many reps as possible over the course of its 15 spring practices, which begin on Friday and will take place over the span of 29 days leading up to an April 17 spring game. But the coaches also believe it is important for the Buckeyes to get back to basics before they ramp up into full-blown scrimmages.
“The first knee-jerk reaction coming off this season was we just gotta start getting game reps, game reps, game reps. Because I was so nervous about not playing in games,” Day said Wednesday. “But the more I talked to our staff, we can’t just jump into that. We missed a lot of fundamental work, and we have to make sure that we’re fundamentally sound, and our foundation is right, before we just jump into those types of things.
“So I think it’s going to be a combination of really making sure fundamentally we’re where we need to be, but then at the same time, like we’ve talked about, we do need to try to get some team and game reps going in those situations, because I know especially for the quarterbacks, these guys don’t have any game reps. Very few, anyways. So it’s a combination of those two things, and it is a little bit different than years past, but at the end of the day, the goal’s still gonna be the same.”
This spring, unquestionably, is even more important than spring always is for the Ohio State football team. The Buckeyes had only three spring practices last year before the rest were canceled, then played only five regular-season games due to the season’s delayed start and in-season cancellations. For the Buckeyes’ players, especially those who weren’t seeing regular playing time last season, that means they missed out on valuable opportunities to gain playing experience and develop on the field.
The good news for the Buckeyes is they have the manpower to have several groups of players practicing against each other simultaneously, which should allow everyone to get more reps as a result. Because 15 of Ohio State’s new freshmen are already on campus as midyear enrollees, and there’s been very little roster attrition over the last couple of months, Day said the Buckeyes will begin spring practices with a roster of 112 players. He expects most of those players to be able to practice in at least a limited capacity, though some who are recovering from injuries – like defensive backs Cameron Brown (torn Achilles) and Kourt Williams (torn ACL) – might not be able to participate in any contact drills until preseason camp.
“There’s a lot of times where we’re gonna be able to get three groups going. We’re three, four, even five-deep at some positions right now,” Day said. “So the good news with that going into the spring is we’re gonna be able to get a lot of guys reps. If it was a normal spring and we were down at certain positions, you just wouldn’t have as many reps in practice.”
Ohio State is beginning spring practice a couple weeks later than usual because it didn’t start winter workouts until February. After the national championship game, the Buckeyes took the rest of January off for rest and recovery time away from the facility, but director of sports performance Mickey Marotti felt it was important for the Buckeyes to still have a full seven weeks of winter workouts to prepare for spring football practices.
“I think it’s been time well-spent,” Day said. “I think we’ve made some great gains. And so going into this spring, this is a good group of guys. We’ve got a pretty big roster right now. So we’re gonna be able to get a lot of football done hopefully this spring.”
This spring will be especially important for the Buckeyes’ young players, particularly the 15 new freshmen as well as the Buckeyes’ 24 second-year scholarship players, given that they didn’t have a full offseason as true freshmen. That group includes the three quarterbacks who will be competing for the starting job this year – C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller and Kyle McCord – along with many players at other positions who will be trying to prove they can contribute for Ohio State in 2021.
“It’s really like you have two freshman classes. You have two classes of guys that really haven’t been through any of this before. So this is all really, really important,” Day said. “And it’s great to just get back to work. That was the thing that I think hit our whole entire staff as we started talking about fundamentals and techniques, and we just found ourselves on both sides of the ball, going back to just basic hand placement, pad level, how we teach certain things on stance and start and just really starting at the base level. Because a lot of those things didn’t happen last year through the spring with our young players.
“So we’re really starting at Day 1, and then building this thing as we go. So that’s really exciting. And I think our young guys really, really need that.”
Ohio State has lots of position battles to sort through this spring, including at quarterback, linebacker, defensive back, interior offensive line, running back and backup tight end. Day said there’s no rush for the Buckeyes to have their depth chart set by the end of spring, though, as he views the start of preseason camp as an extension of spring practice.
What’s most important to accomplish this spring, Day said, is to maximize how much each player can develop over the course of 15 practices – which starts with keeping players on the field and healthy, both in regards to injuries and COVID-19.
“We have to make sure we get 15 practices in, start with that right there, and then we just need to get better fundamentally,” Day said. “We need to keep guys healthy so they get these reps and they get these body reps (as opposed to just mental reps) so that when we get done in the spring, we have X number of reps on film with guys that are actually body reps, that we can coach up off of film over the next couple of months as we head into preseason. If somebody gets hurt or somebody misses those reps or we lose a couple days because of COVID or whatever that is, that would be detrimental. As long as we’re out there, we’re practicing, we get those reps and guys are physically doing it, I’ll feel great about it.”