Ryan Day was worried about his team at this time a year ago.
He admits that now after Ohio State lost two games during the 2021 regular season and failed to win the Big Ten championship, make the College Football Playoff or even beat Michigan. He knew the Buckeyes would have to rely on a lot of inexperienced players last season after playing only eight games in 2020, and he always feared that would come back to bite them.
“When we sat here last year, I was concerned,” Day said. “Going in, you're like, OK, we know we have some pretty talented players, but they have never played. And we have to start right out of the gate with these guys.”
Going into the 2022 season, Day has reason to feel better. The Buckeyes return 10 players on offense and 14 players on defense who played more than 200 snaps in 2021, and their backups had far more opportunities to get on the field than they did in 2020. C.J. Stroud is now one of college football’s biggest stars rather than a quarterback who had never thrown a collegiate pass, and Ohio State has a new defensive staff who Day believes can lead an immediate turnaround on that side of the ball.
None of that guarantees success once the Buckeyes actually start playing games. But it gives Day reason to believe they are closer to achieving their goals this year than they were when they opened preseason camp last August.
“It's a different team, absolutely,” Day said Thursday after the Buckeyes’ first practice of preseason camp. “It's different because these guys have played more, so at least you have a better idea of who you have. It doesn't mean anything, other than the fact that there's more experience and you have a better feel for kind of the team you have. But a new defense and a new scheme there.”
Asked specifically whether he felt this year’s team can win the national championship, Day said that’s Ohio State’s expectation every year. He’s hopeful the Buckeyes have the pieces in place this year to make it happen for the first time in eight seasons this year. He also knows they have a lot of games they must win first, starting with a big game against Notre Dame on Sept. 3, if they’re going to end up in position to compete for a title.
“I mean, you hope that every year you're in that position at Ohio State,” Day said. “I think that's what makes Ohio State unique. There’s probably five or 10 (college football teams) across the country that are that way, where every year, the expectations stay the same. That being said, every year is different. The people are different. And you hope you have enough coming back to give you a chance to make that run, whether it's a young quarterback and a veteran defense, or a veteran offensive line or a veteran quarterback and a younger area, whatever. The good news is, a lot of our younger guys have gotten experience.
“So that's exciting. But you can't start getting too far down the road with that stuff. It just doesn't work. You gotta keep grinding every day and stay hungry.”
The big question surrounding Ohio State as camp begins this year is whether the defense can step up its game after back-to-back down years. Day likes what he’s seen from the unit so far and believes the revamped defensive staff – led by new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and secondary coaches Tim Walton and Perry Eliano along with ninth-year defensive line coach Larry Johnson – is empowering the Buckeyes to feel confident about what they’re doing on that side of the ball.
“I think once we get the pads on, we'll get a better feel for that. But certainly the understanding of the defense, where guys are at, how quickly they're fitting things the right way, how fast they're reacting, they’re where they're supposed to be,” Day said. “And you can tell by their confidence, too, when you're anticipating as opposed to reacting.
“I like the scheme. I like what Jim's doing. I like what our defensive staff is doing. I think Tim and Perry and Larry do a great job. I think they teach effort. They teach fundamentals. I like what's going on there. But the proof will be in the pudding when we play Sept. 3. But certainly there's a lot of optimism.”
Day already made it clear last week that he has high hopes for Ohio State’s defense, saying at Big Ten Media Days the Buckeyes expect to have a top-10 defense. He also recognizes the Buckeyes don’t absolutely need to have a defense that’s quite that good – although it has to be better than the units that ranked 59th in total defense for the past two seasons – if they continue to have an elite offense.
There are many reasons to believe a team that returns its leading passer (Stroud), rusher (TreVeyon Henderson) and receiver (Jaxon Smith-Njigba) from an offense that led the nation in points and yards per game last season will have an elite offense once again. Day said the Buckeyes can’t assume they’ll have an elite offense just because they did last year, though.
“I mean, our offense hasn't done anything. We’re just a whole new group. So we gotta go and prove ourselves,” Day said. “It doesn't just happen. We have to make sure we're starting with our foundation. And that's running the football and toughness and having our edge and ball security and all the little things that lead you there. And then it goes from there.”
“The good news is, a lot of our younger guys have gotten experience. So that’s exciting. But you can't start getting too far down the road with that stuff.”– Ryan Day on expectations for 2022 season
If all goes according to plan, Day believes Ohio State is capable of having top-10 units on offense, defense and special teams this year. And if that comes to fruition, all of the Buckeyes’ goals will be within reach. But Day wants the Buckeyes to take things one step at a time, starting with the 25 practices they’ll have over the next month before they play the Fighting Irish.
“If we can play can complementary football this year, then that gives us a chance to win the first game. And that's all we're going to really focus on right now,” Day said. “It's very, very easy to start getting ahead of ourselves. But in order to reach our goals, we gotta take care of business early on. And really, you can't start accomplishing those goals until November. So we gotta focus on just getting better every day. And, boy, that's cliche, I get it. But you have to; there's a reason why it's a cliche, because you have to do that.
“But yeah, I think our defense has more experience coming into this year. I really like what we're doing schematically. So the expectation, I think someone said ‘Well, why would you say it has to be a top 10 defense?’ I'm not saying it has to be, I’m just saying that’s the expectation. That’s the expectation on offense at Ohio State. And we should be a top-10 special teams. If we want to be the best in the country at what we do, then we should be held accountable to that. That's the goal. That's what we're working to make sure happens. And if we do have a top-10 offense, top-10 defense, top-10 special teams, that'll give us a chance to reach our goals.”