Ryan Day Says Special Teams Mistakes Are “Unacceptable,” But Stands Behind Parker Fleming As “A Great Teacher and a Great Coach”

By Dan Hope on November 7, 2023 at 3:49 pm
Jesse Mirco’s unsuccessful fake punt
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch/USA TODAY Network

Botched plays on special teams have become a concerning trend for Ohio State.

Jesse Mirco’s unsuccessful fake punt run against Rutgers last weekend, which happened even though Ryan Day did not call for a fake on the play, was just the latest miscue for the Buckeyes in the third phase of the game. It was the second time this year that Ohio State has run an accidental fake punt, having also turned the ball over on downs inside their own territory when John Ferlmann erroneously snapped the ball to Cody Simon against Maryland.

The opposite happened in last year’s loss to Michigan, when Mason Arnold was supposed to snap the ball to Mitch Rossi on what would have been a successful fake punt, but snapped the ball back to Mirco instead. Another fake punt in Ohio State’s subsequent game against Georgia was nullified by a timeout but wouldn’t have counted anyway because the Buckeyes had 12 players on the field. And there are plenty of other examples from recent years of Ohio State making unforced errors on special teams.

Those errors have drawn increased scrutiny because of the fact that Ohio State employs a full-time special teams coordinator, Parker Fleming, which many other college football teams do not. Yet despite devoting added resources to special teams, Ohio State has seemingly made more game-changing mistakes than it has game-changing plays in its favor in that area.

Ryan Day said Tuesday that he considers mistakes like that which was made on the non-punt against Rutgers on Saturday – a mistake that was a significant factor in Rutgers taking a lead into halftime – to be unacceptable.

“The ball should have punted. That never should have been a run in that situation,” Day said. “So ultimately, I'm the head coach, and so it comes back on me, but it needs to be communicated better, and it's unacceptable.

“I just think the communication has to be clearer. When you make it too gray, you make it hard on the player. And no excuse, Jesse needs to punt the ball. But I think as coaches, we can be clearer exactly what we want on a play.”

While there are situations in which Mirco is authorized to run the ball rather than punt it if he has an open lane to run for a first down, Day said that was not the case when he did so against Rutgers.

“The decision was just made too quickly, and they were able to rally to it. And so once you get the ball in that spot, we want the ball punted,” Day said.

When asked directly about Fleming, and specifically why he chose to give Fleming a raise and contract extension this year, Day defended his special teams coordinator, saying he thinks Fleming is “a great teacher and a great coach.”

“And I can just tell you that he works as hard as anybody in the building,” Day said. “But we're all being evaluated every single time we're out there. And it's everybody that's involved in special teams. It's not just the coordinator, although he's ultimately in charge and I'm ultimately in charge. So you can put it back on me. But clearly, everybody who's in charge of special teams, because there's a lot of coaches that are involved with that in the meetings, can all do a better job. And so, we'll just keep pushing to make it better. But we know what the expectation is.”

“Ultimately, I'm the head coach, and so it comes back on me, but it needs to be communicated better, and it's unacceptable.”– Ryan Day on Jesse Mirco’s unsuccessful fake punt run

Day also said he does not plan to make any in-season coaching staff changes in response to the special teams errors.

“We're gonna stay where we are right now,” Day said. “Again, I'm there every day and watching how things are taught. And we all need to be a part of it as a coaching staff. If I felt there was something that was not being taught right or done right, then I certainly would intercede, but I'm in those meetings, I see what goes on, and so we just need to do a better job. But like anything, we'll continue to evaluate it and make sure that we're doing what's best for the players.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean there couldn't be staff changes in the future if Ohio State’s special teams play doesn’t improve. Graduate assistant James Laurinaitis is a prime candidate for a promotion to the full-time coaching staff sooner than later, and the argument can be made that Ohio State should replace Fleming with a fifth defensive coach to balance out its staff of assistant coaches (even if Ohio State’s defensive play this season leaves no need for any major changes). While Fleming received a new two-year contract in the offseason, the second year of that contract wouldn’t preclude Day from making a change if he feels one is necessary.

For now, though, Day is keeping his faith in Fleming and the rest of Ohio State’s coaching staff and trusting them to get the team’s special teams communication ironed out while recognizing that the ultimate responsibility for the team’s performance in all phases of the game falls back on him.

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