Quick Hits: Ohio State’s 10 Assistant Coaches, James Laurinaitis and Mark Pantoni Provide Offseason Updates, Look Ahead to Spring Practice

By Dan Hope, Griffin Strom, Garrick Hodge and Chase Brown on February 1, 2023 at 6:30 pm
Jim Knowles

All 10 of Ohio State’s full-time assistant coaches met with the media on Wednesday. So did director of player personnel Mark Pantoni and new graduate assistant James Laurinaitis.

As each of the coaches spoke publicly for the first time this offseason, we got plenty of insight into where they’re looking to improve from last season, their expectations for spring football and what they’re looking for out of their respective position groups. Pantoni gave his thoughts on Ohio State’s 2023 recruiting class and the state of recruiting as a whole while Laurinaitis explained why he chose to return to his alma mater after just one year at Notre Dame.

We rounded up some of the most notable things each of them said below, while we’ve attached videos from all 12 of their interview sessions for those who want to hear more of what each of them had to say.

Brian Hartline

Ohio State’s new offensive coordinator talked about his readiness to potentially be the Buckeyes’ new play-caller, how much input he’ll have in deciding a starting quarterback and the state of his wide receiver room.

  • Hartline said “everything’s on the table” as to whether he or Ryan Day will call plays this season, but Hartline said he is “very confident” in his ability to call plays if he is tasked with doing so.
  • He said he doesn’t think Ohio State needs to rush to decide on a starting quarterback. He says he’ll “be a part of the conversation” but will lean heavily on Day and Corey Dennis to make that decision.
  • He said he’s “definitely getting more comfortable” with NIL, but that a receiver whose recruiting decision is primarily driven by NIL is “probably not a guy that would fit in our room.” He says that’s a decision every position coach has to make for himself.
  • He said he is excited about recruiting players across the entire offense now that he’s the offensive coordinator. He views it as his role to help the other offensive position coaches recruit the players they want, but he won’t dictate which players they should recruit.
  • His message to the receivers who are trying to earn more playing time is to do the things they need to do to impress their peers and impress director of sports performance Mickey Marotti during winter workouts. “I’ve never seen a guy impress Coach Mick and not be on the field.”

James Laurinaitis

The former Ohio State linebacker and new defensive graduate assistant discussed his return to Columbus after just one year at Notre Dame and what kind of impact he hopes to make for the Buckeyes.

  • Laurinaitis said his wife and daughters had “pure giddiness” when he told them they could return to Columbus. He wanted to make sure he would have the opportunity to work directly with the linebackers, but once he got that assurance, he couldn’t pass up the chance to return to his alma mater. “There’s only one place that’s home.”
  • He said he could sense Ryan Day’s “passion that he really wanted to bring me back and that he thought the timing was right and that he really thought that I could help the room.”
  • He said Marcus Freeman was “great about it” and told Laurinaitis to follow his heart. He says they’ve “talked plenty of times since” and he’s confident their friendship won’t be affected by his departure from Notre Dame.
  • Laurinaitis said his goal is to “be the best linebackers coach in the country,” and he hopes to be able to do that at Ohio State. “I’ll attack this year with that vision.”

Jim Knowles

Ohio State’s defensive coordinator discussed the improvements he’s looking to make in his second year with the Buckeyes and the impact of Laurinaitis joining the staff.

  • Knowles said he was able to install about two-thirds of what he ultimately wants to install at Ohio State during his first year with the Buckeyes.
  • On the impact of Laurinaitis returning to Ohio State: “It's always exciting when you have a guy to come in and coach with you who also has his picture on your wall.” He thinks Laurinaitis will really be able to help the linebackers from a technique standpoint.
  • On improving the defense this year: “Now that I'm coming into year two, I've got to be even more demanding, and push and put on more steam with the players individually on the preciseness of the technique, you know, and I got to really bear down.”
  • Knowles said the Buckeyes will try Syracuse transfer Ja’Had Carter at both nickel safety and free safety. “We're gonna see where he fits best, because I think he can help us for sure.” He said Lathan Ransom could play either adjuster or bandit this season, while Josh Proctor, Sonny Styles, Kye Stokes and Cameron Martinez will also all be in the mix to compete for starting spots.
  • Knowles said Mitchell Melton is “a guy that you need to look for” at the Jack position once he is healthy.

Corey Dennis

The Buckeye quarterback coach previewed the forthcoming QB competition between Kyle McCord and Devin Brown, broke down some of the differences in their game and talked about incoming freshman passer Lincoln Kienholz.

  • Dennis says the outside world paints a picture of a “crazy, fierce quarterback battle,” but “that room knows that they need each other. Those guys lean on each other.” Dennis says he’s learned to bring quarterbacks together even amid competition.
  • On Ryan Day wanting a starter to emerge in the spring: “During the competition in the past, you always want somebody to project and go and do it. But I’m on the same page as Coach Day. You hope someone jumps out and takes the reins and they’re the guy in the spring, for sure.”
  • On Kienholz, Dennis says he’s “an extremely productive guy” and “extremely athletic.” Dennis says his Kienholz even had an interception on defense in the state championship game in high school. Dennis says Kienholz will “come visit a bunch” during the spring before officially enrolling on campus.
  • On what he wants to see from McCord and Brown this offseason, Dennis says he wants them to earn respect from teammates in the weight room, work on being vocal and being “felt” when they come into a room.
  • Dennis says there “definitely is a blank slate” for both McCord and Brown entering the quarterback competition.
  • Dennis says Brown is “awesome” and that guys “gravitate” to his personality. Dennis says he’s looking forward to seeing Brown and McCord start getting more reps. Dennis says Brown’s ability to move and extend plays is his “niche.”

Keenan Bailey

Ohio State’s newly minted tight ends coach talked about how cutting his teeth as a graduate assistant prepared him to be a position coach, the reaction from former Buckeyes on his promotion and what he learned from Kevin Wilson before taking over his post.

  • On the promotion, Bailey says he felt prepared for an assistant coaching opportunity after working with Justin Frye on the offensive line this past year and is “super appreciative of Coach Day trusting me.”
  • Bailey says the TE room is a “deep room full of versatile guys.” He says he couldn’t have hand-picked a better leader for the room than Cade Stover. “Whole lot of guys who are hungry and excited to get to work.”
  • Bailey says hearing the positive response from former players like Terry McLaurin, Parris Campbell and Jordan Fuller was the “highlight of it all” after learning he received his promotion. Bailey says he went “all in on people and relationships and not ping-ponging around” from school to school as he worked his way up.
  • Bailey wants to “take as much of what Kevin Wilson did” as possible and build on it. Bailey says he still texts Wilson for tips, and sat in on his meetings during the bowl practice period.
  • Jelani Thurman has done a “great job so far” of attaching himself to veterans and taking coaching well. Bailey says Thurman is “eager” to learn and says he “can’t wait to get on the field and get working with him.”

Larry Johnson

Entering his 10th year as Ohio State defensive line coach, Johnson addressed retirement speculation, the state of affairs in his position room and how recruiting is changing in the NIL era.

  • Johnson says learning how to be consistent is the next step for J.T Tuimoloau. “That’s what he’s working on, just kind of revamping himself and continue to move forward.”
  • On Jack Sawyer, Johnson says “I think we gotta make that decision” on whether he’ll play the Jack position or traditional defensive end moving forward.
  • Johnson says Mike Hall is a “starter somewhere, and we just gotta find a place to get him on the field.” Johnson says “I think he’ll be fine” even if he moves from nose tackle to 3-tech.
  • Caden Curry will go into the offseason as a second-string defensive end on the depth chart, Johnson says. “I don’t want to move him, I want him to learn that position and play it well. I think he’s got a good chance to be a factor for us.”
  • Asked about his future and whether he’s contemplated retirement, Johnson jokes “I wonder if Nick Saban gets all these questions about when he’s gonna retire?” Johnson says “every year I’m still here, so that should answer all of your questions, so you never have to ask me that. … Until you see an empty chair here, then you know I’m gone. But I’m still standing here, I’m still here.”
  • On how recruiting has changed in the age of NIL: “This is still a relationship business, it really is. We’re getting away from it a little bit, but it’s relationship and development. Those are the keys for getting guys here, and I don’t think that’s gonna change. At least for me.”

Perry Eliano

Ohio State’s safeties coach talked about Ja’Had Carter, Josh Proctor and Sonny Styles while explaining his belief that the players in his position room will live up to the expectations Jim Knowles has set for them in his safety-driven defense.

  • Eliano said he and Syracuse transfer safety Ja’Had Carter “hit it off” when he visited Ohio State. Eliano believes Carter “understands he wants to be developed,” which makes him “excited for what he’s going to do this offseason.”
  • Eliano said Ohio State’s safety room is excellent, with players like Carter, Lathan Ransom and Sonny Styles competing for spots. “Iron sharpens iron. You come to Ohio State to be the best. You come to Ohio State as a DB because we’re the best in America.”
  • Eliano said Josh Proctor’s return to Ohio State provided the safety room with a huge boost because of the relationships he shares with his teammates. “It starts with relationships. … But it’s also the opportunity to come back and win a championship with his brothers, to be a better football player and to be the best version of himself.”
  • Eliano said Styles will have to earn his role in the defense as a sophomore. “You earn what you get here. You earn what you get in the secondary. There are no handouts.” That said, Eliano expects Styles to have a great offseason. “He has a great mindset. He’s very coachable. He wants to be the best he can be.”
  • Eliano believes Ohio State’s defense will improve from 2021 to 2022. “We know our personnel. We know our player’s strong suits.” Beyond that, he thinks the defensive issues will be fixed this offseason. “We understand the challenges that lie ahead of us. We’re addressing those every day.”

Tim Walton

Ohio State’s cornerbacks coach talked about his excitement to have Jermaine Mathews and Calvin Simpson-Hunt on the roster in 2023 and thinks his returning players will continue to improve with another year of experience under their belt.

  • Walton said 2023 recruits Jermaine Mathews and Calvin Simpson-Hunt popped off the tape he watched of them as players for their respective high schools. “They’re very competitive. They have a passion to play. They have good skill sets. … They’re really good kids, both of them.”
  • Despite a number of returning players in the cornerback room, such as Denzel Burke, Jordan Hancock, Jyaire Brown and others, Walton said “there is no pecking order in the room” as of now. Because of that, Walton hopes “there’s a competition that lets guys in the room earn their jobs.”
  • Walton said he has four goals for his cornerbacks this spring. “We need to understand the game. We need to keep developing our bodies. We need to keep getting stronger, and we need to become technically sound. … That’s all part of the maturation process.”
  • Walton said the primary lesson he learned from the 2022 season is that he can never have too many players ready to play each week. “We need to always have guys ready. They need to be ready to play different spots, different sides of the ball and different positions. We want to be healthy, but we need to be ready if we aren’t.”
  • Walton said he and Jim Knowles have had several conversations since the Michigan game about the cornerbacks limiting explosive plays. “We have another year to work together in his system, which should allow us to limit some of the mistakes that showed up because of the experience we have with our guys.”

Tony Alford

Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford talked about the depth of his running back next season with players like TreVeyon Henderson, Miyan Williams, Evan Pryor, Dallan Hayden and Chip Trayanum all providing the Buckeyes will unique skillsets.

  • Alford said TreVeyon Henderson has been making tremendous progress in his recovery from a foot injury he had after Ohio State’s regular season ended. “He’s been great. From all indicators for me, he’s been great. … We expect to have him back working out in the summer.”
  • Alford said that, as of now, the plan is for Chip Trayanum to remain with the running back room next season, a decision Alford is happy about. “He’s a great player. Chip is a consummate team guy. He wanted to play (this past season), and he felt like he could help us kind of with our situation of depleted bodies. … He helped us out when needed.”
  • Alford said he hopes Dallan Hayden builds confidence from his performances as a freshman into next season. “He needs to eliminate the noise around him. … Dallan is will be an excellent football player for us, but he's never been through an offseason. He's never been through a spring. So this is still all new uncharted waters for him.”
  • Alford said he would like to see Evan Pryor do a lot of the things Xavier Johnson accomplished this past season as a pass-catcher and runner. “We’ve always felt that he would be an integral part of our offense. … Hopefully, he can be that for us this year.”
  • Alford said Johnson is a fantastic leader in Ohio State’s locker room. Even though he will be a wide receiver again in 2023, he would take Johnson at his position in a heartbeat. “He’s selfless. I think our locker room is littered with those kinds of guys. We talk about that Brotherhood. It’s real.”

Mark Pantoni

Ohio State’s director of player personnel was very adamant about the Buckeyes not focusing too much time on players that are solely focused on NIL, was pleased with the 2023 class in general and was in favor of adding another signing period to the calendar. 

  • Pantoni said Ohio State will probably “pull out” of recruiting national players earlier than usual if the staff gets the hint that a driving force behind their recruitment is NIL driven. 
  • He added that OSU is likely to target more players from Ohio and the Midwest in general given the current recruiting climate and emphasized it’s important to recruit players that want to be in Columbus. 
  • Pantoni said Ohio State is “very pleased” with Ohio State’s 2023 class, which includes 20 signees. He acknowledges that number may be smaller than usual but attributed that to a lot of players returning, such as Cade Stover, Tommy Eichenberg and Xavier Johnson, which he called “recruiting wins” for OSU. He also added OSU knew heading into December they’d have to take a couple of portal players because the Buckeyes wanted to add veteran players that have game experience. 
  • In regards to the current recruiting calendar with two signing periods and two transfer portal windows, Pantoni says the current climate will “add a lot of gray hair to coaches’ heads when factoring in championships and traveling to recruit. Pantoni was in favor of keeping the Early Signing Period because it gives the staff confidence knowing they have players signed entering the holiday season, but wishes the portal was more “fluid” and spread out so “500 guys” don’t all jump into the portal at one time. 
  • Pantoni said he’s also floated an idea to some of his colleagues about advocating for another signing day on July 1 to give an opportunity for prospects to sign if they’re ready after taking their official visits in June.

Justin Frye

Ohio State’s offensive line coach was very coy when asked about what his starting offensive line would look like if OSU had a game immediately, as he simply said “five guys.” Frye also gave updates on the progress of the unit in general.

  • On Matt Jones, Frye said he made a decision to return so he could come back, get another year better and “be ready” for the next level. He said he liked where Jones’ mindset was at heading into the bowl game. 
  • Frye said the uncertainty around starting positions on the offensive line makes the unit the “hungriest” on the team, so he’s excited to see who steps up. Frye said his linemen are excited and all “hungry” and all “want to be coached.” 
  • On being promoted to run game coordinator, Frye said deflected from himself and complimented OSU’s offensive staff with the likes of Hartline, Alford, Dennis, etc. He emphasized that there’s zero issues with ego on the coaching staff, but said the offensive line is probably excited about it because the run game plan will be seen through the offensive lines’ eyes. 

Parker Fleming

Ohio State's special teams coordinator previewed the upcoming kicker competition this spring and discussed how Noah Ruggles handled his missed field goal at the end of the Peach Bowl.

  • On Parker Lewis, Fleming said he’s “a powerful kicker” and “talented.” He said Lewis would be in the mix for the starting kicker job with the departure of Noah Ruggles. 
  • On Jayden Fielding, Fleming said his experience kicking off plays a factor in winning a job because “playing in any game in any role is experience.” He backed up Ruggles last season and got actual reps, but cautioned spring reps will be helpful in deciding who the starter could be. 
  • Fleming said Noah Ruggles is a “tough dude” and didn’t have to make sure his spirits were up after his missed field goal against Georgia. While he acknowledged the result was “hard,” he mentioned Ruggles is “in a good place.”
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