The first question Ryan Day received at Big Ten Media Days wasn’t a surprise. Sooner or later, the Buckeye head coach was destined to be peppered with inquiries about the quarterback position.
What did come as a surprise was the first name Day mentioned. Granted, he was asked in jest who Ohio State's backup quarterback would be by the start of the season, but Day began the QB talk with a true freshman that just arrived on campus this summer rather than diving into the hotly contested battle between Kyle McCord and Devin Brown.
Lincoln Kienholz wasn’t an early enrollee and didn’t have time to learn the ropes of the Buckeye offense during spring camp. But something about the four-star passer out of Pierre, South Dakota, impressed the Ohio State coaching staff in short order. In fact, Kienholz appears to possess a slew of eye-catching attributes, if Day’s Wednesday comments are any indication.
“Lincoln has stepped in and (I’m) very surprised with just his approach,” Day said at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. “Been really impressed with how it doesn't seem too big for Lincoln. He's very athletic. He's learning. He's got a long way to go. He came in in the summer but excited to have him here.”
A multi-sport athlete out of T.F. Riggs High School, Kienholz didn’t even commit to Ohio State until this past December, having previously been slated to join the Washington Huskies before a late push from the Buckeyes. The 138th-ranked prospect in the nation and No. 11 quarterback in his class, Kienholz’s mental makeup seemed to win Day and company over just as much as his skill set on the gridiron.
Despite entering a quarterback room with two elite talents ahead of him on the depth chart, Kienholz didn’t run from the competition.
“He came here, saw the environment, and was like, ‘I want this.’ And that's a huge part of it,” Day said when Ohio State signed Kienholz. “This isn't for everybody. Being the starting quarterback for Ohio State is not for everybody. It's got some unbelievable things, but there are a lot of things that come with it. He kind of looked at it and was like, ‘This is what I want.’ That was important. I liked his makeup. I thought Corey Dennis really did a great job building a relationship with him and his mom … he was like, ‘Oh, I'll go in that room. I'll compete against anybody. Let's go.’ That's awesome. And that's something that I think we're excited about and looking forward to getting to work with him.”
But that was before he got to the program. Perhaps once Kienholz arrived on campus for summer workouts and the start of preseason camp, the difficulty of his situation might become more apparent.
According to Day, though, Kienholz has excelled since diving into the deep end this summer.
“He's jumped right in. Hasn't been overwhelmed, he's athletic. He's got a long way to go, but he's got a bright future ahead of him.”– Ryan Day on Lincoln Kienholz
“I gotta give Lincoln credit. He's coming from South Dakota, doesn't have a huge background of playing quarterback, but he's jumped right in,” Day said. “Hasn't been overwhelmed, he's athletic. He's got a long way to go, but he's got a bright future ahead of him.”
All that praise doesn’t mean Kienholz is any more likely to factor into the quarterback battle this offseason. In fact, he may not even be Ohio State’s third-string QB in 2023. Day said Oregon State transfer Tristan Gebbia, who spent this past spring learning the system at Ohio State, “understands the offense now at a high level.”
With Gebbia and Kienholz in the quarterback room alongside McCord and Brown, Day said “This is the most depth we've had for a long time at the quarterback position, which will allow us to do some things maybe we haven't done in the past.”
Ultimately, all eyes will be on McCord and Brown this preseason and Day hopes one of them can truly separate from the other early on in camp. However, he didn’t rule out the possibility that the battle could wage on into the season, should the competition remains as close as he’s repeatedly described it to be.
“They both had very good summers. They both have shown leadership. (Mickey Marotti) has really put him in situations to do that. Now it's going to be time to go put it on the field,” Day said. “We obviously would like for someone to emerge here quickly. We'll kind of have to see once we get on the field. … Again, I'm excited to see these guys compete and go put it on the field. It's different when you're throwing routes in the air and going through workouts than when you're actually playing football. We've got to go start playing football here and figure out who the quarterback is going to be.”
As for other summer enrollee freshmen, Day seems to think highly of several new Buckeyes. Even without seeing them suit up in pads and helmets during the team’s spring schedule, Day gushed about first-year defenders Arvell Reese and Calvin Simpson-Hunt nearly as much as he did Kienholz.
“Arvell Reese is very, very talented. He's got a lot to learn. For a lot of the guys that came in this summer, they have a lot to learn,” Day said. “Calvin Simpson-Hunt is gonna be – he's got a really bright future ahead of him. I hate to sit here and tell them they're gonna be great players, because they have to put all the work in to get there. But when you're looking at their ability level, some of the guys that have come in, we're excited about all of them. It's hard to pick one out because my phone's going to ring and someone's parent's gonna ask me, 'Why didn't you mention my son?' But I think some of those guys are gonna have a chance to get on the field this year.”
Kienholz may not be the first member of that group to see extensive playing time at Ohio State, but early returns from Day indicate he could lead a talented nucleus for the Buckeyes at some point down the line.