For Ohio State’s players who didn’t see regular playing time during the regular season, the next couple of weeks could be their biggest opportunity since preseason camp to make an impression on the practice field and make the case they’re ready to start playing bigger roles.
During a typical practice week during the regular season, the majority of practice time is spent working specifically on the game plan to beat that week’s opponent. As a result, most of the meaningful reps in practice go to the starters and other players who are in the rotation at their respective positions, while players at the back of the depth chart are relegated mostly to scout team work.
The first two weeks of bowl practice, however, function more like preseason camp or spring practice in that Ohio State will focus on fundamentals and skill development and give reps to a wider variety of players. While the Buckeyes’ primary goal for the next three weeks remains beating Utah in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, and they’ll focus on game preparation once they arrive in Los Angeles on Dec. 26, they’ll also use their nine bowl practices in Columbus – the first of which was held on Friday – as an opportunity to develop and evaluate their young players.
Given that the Buckeyes aren’t playing for a national championship this year, one could make the argument that getting a head start on preparing for next year will be the most important aspect of bowl practices.
“Yeah, it’s really important,” Day said last Sunday after the Buckeyes’ Rose Bowl bid was announced. “We just got off of a team meeting at 2:45, we just grabbed them on a Zoom call just really quickly to talk a little bit about the Rose Bowl and how important these practices are going to be, for a lot of reasons. A rebite for some of the old guys to get ready to play in this game, but also for the younger guys to continually develop. So we’re gonna do a really, really good job over the next couple of weeks of digging into those practices and making sure every practice counts as we head into this game week.”
Like many things, Ohio State didn’t have the chance to have a true bowl practice schedule in 2020. Because the regular season ended two weeks later than usual last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ohio State had less than two weeks between playing in the Big Ten Championship Game and playing Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals, so the Buckeyes immediately began preparing to beat the Tigers rather than gradually ramping up to a game week.
With more time to prepare for the bowl game this year, Ohio State is taking a multi-phased approach to its December practice schedule.
“It’s really in three phases,” Day said. “We’re gonna start on fundamentals, then we’ll get into game planning, then we’ll get into the bowl site and we’ll have game week there. And that’s really what the focus is on right now. I think there’s a lot of lessons that have been learned from the last game, and that will obviously motivate us moving forward.”
Winning the Rose Bowl “and sending out the seniors in the right way” is still the primary goal for Ohio State, Day says, so everything the Buckeyes do over the next two weeks will be done with that endgame in mind. Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud expects that to be motivation enough for the Buckeyes to work hard in practice for the next three weeks.
“I feel like it’s the right thing to do. Especially leading out the seniors out with a win,” Stroud said last week. “So we have a great attitude. Dudes are showing up to our workouts killing it, running hard, lifting hard.”
At least one current member of the coaching staff won’t be back with the team next year, while there are plenty of seniors and other Buckeyes who could opt to enter the NFL draft that will be playing their final games for Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, so their focus for the next three weeks will surely be on trying to go out with a win over Utah. The Buckeyes won’t truly begin their preparation for 2022 until new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles arrives and the rest of next season’s coaching staff is set, while there will also be plenty of new freshmen signing with the Buckeyes this week who will be competing for playing time in spring practice and/or preseason camp, depending on whether or not they enroll early.
Nonetheless, the next three weeks will be a real opportunity for less experienced players at all positions to make strides that could go a long way toward where they’re positioned on the depth chart entering spring practices in March. Everything they do in their final practices of 2021 will be remembered when the Buckeyes officially turn the page to 2022.
Those Buckeyes could even have the opportunity to earn increased playing time in the Rose Bowl, especially if any outgoing veterans decide to opt out and preserve their health for the NFL draft. While no Ohio State players have said they will opt out of the Rose Bowl as of yet, it’s still possible that some Buckeyes could, which would open the door for other players to have bigger roles against Utah that could potentially propel them into more consistent ones next season.
So while there’s no result in the Rose Bowl that will change the fact that Ohio State fell short of accomplishing its primary goals in 2021, that doesn’t decrease the importance of taking the next few weeks of practices seriously, as they will help set the foundation for the Buckeyes going into their 2022 offseason.
“When you play in the Rose Bowl, it matters, and it’s a very, very important game. And we take a lot of pride in who we are,” Day said. “And then for the young guys, this is an opportunity to catapult them into next year. So I think everyone’s hurting from the last game, this is an opportunity to kind of change that feeling a little bit.”