Only one padded practice into the spring schedule, Ryan Day stopped short of giving full-fledged evaluations on several key areas of his team during Tuesday's press conference.
The Buckeye head coach repeatedly cited a lack of game-like situations as the reason why he won’t jump to any detailed conclusions about Ohio State just yet – at least not publicly. But coming up this weekend, the Buckeyes have exactly that kind of scenario in place to put the 2023 roster to the test.
Ohio State will hold its first formal scrimmage of the spring on Saturday at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, and unlike in years past, media members will be permitted to watch the proceedings. For Day, it will be an opportunity to evaluate Brian Hartline as an offensive play caller, assess the two quarterbacks vying for the starting job under center and generally get a better idea of where his team is at early in the offseason.
As of Tuesday, Day had yet to meet with his staff to discuss fleshed-out parameters for the scrimmage, but said he intends on getting young players plenty of reps and keeping things relatively simple in terms of scheme.
“What We want to do is get a lot of those younger guys a bunch of game reps, see who can tackle, see who’s gonna make plays, give them an opportunity to go put it on the field.”– Ryan Day on Saturday's scrimmage
“We gotta talk about it as a staff in terms of exactly how we’re gonna do it, we’ll see how we come out of Thursday. That’s a big part of it too, is the injuries and how many guys we have at what position,” Day said. “So we’ll try to figure out how many reps we want to get each guy. We want to tackle to the ground with certain guys. One thing about spring practice, the more you think about it with COVID and everything that’s gone on the last couple years, you have guys that have been in the program for four years, for five years, then you have guys who should be finishing up their senior year of high school. So you have different variety of experiences and age groups.
“So trying to figure out what’s right for each guy is where this time of year you have to do a great job of. Some guys have played a bunch of football, they’ve had thousands of snaps in games. Other guys haven’t done it before. So what we want to do is get a lot of those younger guys a bunch of game reps, see who can tackle, see who’s gonna make plays, give them an opportunity to go put it on the field. So we’ll be very basic in what we’re doing schematically, but just allow them to go play and then grade the film and see where we’re at.”
As for the quarterbacks in particular, Day will get a better feel for how Kyle McCord and Devin Brown respond to some live-action situations, even if they are sporting non-contact jerseys during the scrimmage.
Day said even in the case of C.J. Stroud in 2021, there were certain aspects of his game he wasn’t able to gauge until his first start. McCord already has one start under his belt, but that was two seasons ago against a lower-level non-conference opponent. Brown hasn’t even thrown a pass at the college level. So even if Saturday isn’t directly equivalent to an actual game, it will still give Day some valuable information as he continues to evaluate both passers’ play in the offseason.
“(We’re) trying to compare and contrast based on quarterbacks we’ve had in the past. What it’s looked like, the decision-making process, trying to put them in as many game-like situations as possible,” Day said. “Third down, red zone. But to be honest with you, you don’t really know until you get into a game. You don’t. I was talking to C.J. about it out there, he was at practice (Tuesday), and that first Minnesota game, what that was like and the ups and downs of that one. And a big part of it is getting your confidence.
“But I think you want to identify the things they do well and then really emphasize those, and then recognize the areas that need to be improved and try to make sure we’re addressing those, and just try to get the guys better every day. And over time, it seems to always kind of shake itself out. But we’re into day three and there were some good things out there today.”
Day isn’t looking for either quarterback to reinvent the wheel on Saturday. The Buckeye head coach has repeatedly stressed the importance of taking care of the ball and simply running the offense efficiently, citing the established top-level skill position talent that McCord and Brown will have as a supporting cast.
Day said he wants to find the “extraordinary traits” that each quarterback possesses, but before they’re ready to showcase their utmost athletic potential, Day just wants to see McCord and Brown do the ordinary things at an elite level.
“I’ve been talking to our guys about making the routine plays routinely. With our players and the skill we have, we need don’t need extraordinary stuff,” Day said. “We need people to take care of the football. If the first read’s there, take it. If not, work onto two, three and then have a plan from there. Make good decisions in the run game, take care of the football and lead the offense. If you’re gonna turn the ball over, it’s not gonna go well here. So we’ve gotta take care of the ball, but you also know we’re gonna be aggressive. It’s a lot easier to say, ‘Take care of the football,’ but we also want to go score a bunch of touchdowns.
“So there’s that balance that you have to find. Some guys can find that easier than others. We’ve been fortunate enough to find the guys that get a feel for that. It’s probably a big part of the it-factor that people talk about. Seeing the field and understanding situations. But the more game-like situations we can create, the more we can get a feel for that. Certainly taking care of the football and making routine plays routinely is important.”
But Day won’t just be watching his players on Saturday. Before the spring, Day announced that new offensive coordinator Brian Hartline would have a chance to call plays on offense. Ohio State hasn’t had much of an opportunity to try that out as of yet, but the scrimmage will allow Hartline to have a trial run – to an extent – as a play caller.
“You don’t really know until you get into a game how that works. But we’re gonna try these next couple weeks to try to get some game-type situations and get that going,” Day said. “A big part of it right now in the first 10 practices is installing, is fundamentals. And then we try to start playing the game more. But when you don’t have red zone and third down, short-yardage, those type of situations in, it’s hard to get into those type of game situations.
“So we’ll typically script a lot of what we do. And we’re only into day three here and today was our first day in pads coming off of spring break, so we’re pretty basic. We’re really working on fundamentals; hand placement, pad level, those type of things, ball security. And then as we get into more situational stuff, then we have our full game plan and we can get into that stuff. The best you can do is just kind of get out there and call it and just see what happens, try to change the situation the best you can. But you don’t really get a feel for it until you’re in a game.”
Day said he and Hartline “haven’t really talked about it” as of Tuesday, but that they’ll “put a little game plan together and let him call it, see how it goes.”
Quarterback play and play calling aren’t the only things Day will be keeping a close eye on Saturday, but there’s no doubt they will be two of the most important. And perhaps after the scrimmage, Day will have fully-formed thoughts on the progress of his team following two full weeks of spring ball.