Skull Session: Gene Smith Told Chris Holtmann "Play the Freshmen," Kyle McCord's Leadership Transition is "Natural" and Brian Hartline Wants to Enhance OSU's Offense

By Chase Brown on March 13, 2023 at 5:00 am
Chris Holtmann
Kamil Krzaczynski / USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Skull Session.

I hope everyone had a wonderful weekend. This sports bettor did not.

Let's have a good Monday, shall we?

 "PLAY THE FRESHMEN." Ohio State men's basketball had an... interesting season. The Basketbucks started 10-3 with wins over Texas Tech, Rutgers and Northwestern, and they had close losses to San Diego State, North Carolina and Duke. But then the Buckeyes lost 14 of their next 15 contests. They hit rock bottom.

At that point, Gene Smith needed to have a conversation with Chris Holtmann. However, it wasn't the conversation one would probably expect an athletic director to have with a head coach in the middle of one of the worst stretches in program history.

From Dana O'Neil of The Athletic:

As the losses piled up, starting in early January and continuing with just one game of respite until the end of February, Gene Smith called Chris Holtmann into his office for a meeting. In constant contact throughout the season via text, the Ohio State athletic director thought it was time to chat a little more formally with his men’s basketball coach. He’d already offered a public vote of confidence but knows plenty of folks read those more like a kiss from Judas, especially as the external heat piled on Holtmann amid the Buckeyes’ disastrous skid.

The thing is, he meant it. He always meant it. If Holtmann was on an external hot seat, it never burned in the AD’s office. Smith knew what other people didn’t: What the Buckeyes were going through, it was all part of a very intentional plan that Smith and Holtmann laid out at the beginning of the season. “Play the freshmen,” Smith told his coach. Holtmann understandably raised an eyebrow, double-checking that his boss understood what he was asking. Young is not the way to go in college basketball — not the successful route, at least. The transfer portal has allowed everyone to put their rosters in a near time machine, aging young teams with a few phone calls. Going young with intent is not merely going retro; it’s going rogue.

“It was difficult, really difficult,” Holtmann said. “Maybe the most difficult year of my career. But Gene told me he wanted me to build a foundation. He didn’t want me to take a lot of transfers. I just said, ‘Are you sure?’”

“I was,” Smith told The Athletic. “I knew we might take some lumps and there would be some heat. But this is the right way to go. If you have young guys and you’re not giving them playing time, why would they stay? We want to build something, and to do that you need talented people who are going to be with us for a while.”

Holtmann followed through on those orders. They ended up working well. Like, really well. As Ohio State wrapped up its regular season in late February and early March, the Buckeyes looked better in every way, winning two of their final three games.

At the Big Ten Tournament, Ohio State was expected to be a one-and-done team as the No. 13 seed – the program's lowest seeding in history. But then they took down Wisconsin... and then Iowa... and then Michigan State. They even hung in with top-seeded Purdue, now a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

They accomplished all of that by playing the freshmen. In the final seven games of the year, Holtmann's future became clear as Bruce Thornton, Felix Okpara and Roddy Gayle – my goodness, Roddy Gayle – broke out for the Buckeyes, each in their own unique ways.

With all three expected to return (and maybe even Brice Sensabaugh will, too, who knows?) and Ohio State set to add Taison Chatman, Scotty Middleton, Devin Royal and Austin Parks next season, the Buckeyes are all but guaranteed to improve next season. Given what O'Neil wrote in her article, we may just have Gene Smith to thank for that.

 LEADERSHIP "NATURAL" FOR MCCORD. Ryan Day believes that Kyle McCord and Devin Brown have the talent to be Ohio State's starting quarterback. As they battle for that spot, Day said Tuesday two qualities will provide one of them with an advantage: Leadership and toughness.

Immediately after Day's press conference, McCord and Brown spoke with the media on the Woody Hayes Athletic Center indoor practice field. There, McCord said that his transition into leadership has been "natural." Even more, that his role as a leader has grown ever since.

“I think honestly it was more so a natural transition,” McCord said. “When C.J. was here, you (didn't) want to step on his toes or anything like that because he was the clear, defined leader of the team. He was the voice of the team. But now that he’s gone, I think naturally the opportunity is to step up and speak, things like that came. So it was good. ... It's something I was trying to be a little conscience of early on in the winter, and then over time just became second nature.”

McCord feels like the "natural" pick for Ohio State's starter next season. He was Stroud's primary backup for two seasons, and he's paid his dues. But, at the same time, Brown is a force to reckon with. I expect both to make stellar plays this spring and stand out this offseason. I also expect both to display leadership and toughness in specific ways.

But as Day said, the better leader and the tougher player will come out on top, which makes quotes like this from McCord about leadership all the more impactful. Hopefully, both he and Brown will continue to grow more comfortable in those roles as time goes on.

May the best man win.

 IT CAN GET BETTER? Pedro Pascal, lead actor in "The Mandalorian," "The Last of Us" and several other shows and movies, has officially become one of America's most beloved celebrities – if not the most beloved celebrity. He has that kind of hold over pop culture realms and spaces in the United States.

A few years ago, when Pascal was relatively well-known but hadn't reached his current level of stardom, he appeared in "Wonder Woman: 1984" as a character named Maxwell Lord, an influential businessman and opportunistic television personality. Lord's catchphrase was, "Life is good, but it can be better."

As I listened to Ohio State offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Brian Hartline talk about what the Buckeyes can improve offensively this offseason, that phrase repeated in my head constantly. That's because I constantly asked myself, "How can an offense that consistently ranks near the top of college football improve?"

Hartline had a few answers for that.

“The number of explosive plays and continuing to be explosive,” Hartline said. “We have explosive players, and we have explosive ideas. But the execution of explosive plays can be enhanced. I think, at the end of the day, we’ve been very productive. But I do have a pride that there’s still more meat on that bone."

How does Hartline know Ohio State still has meat on the bone? Because Ohio State hasn't beaten Michigan, won a Big Ten Championship or a national championship in the past two seasons.

"We have not accomplished our goals the last few years," he said. "That’s easy to identify. We have to do that. We have to play our part."

It's interesting to hear Hartline speak about Ohio State's offense as if it needs to be better for the team to accomplish its goals. The Buckeyes have possessed one of the best offenses in college football since Day took over as head coach in 2019. Shouldn't the defense be to blame for Ohio State's shortcomings over the last two years?

Well, yes. But the offense shouldn't receive a free pass, either.

If we look closer at three of Ohio State's losses in 2021 and 2022  – Oregon and Michigan (twice) – the offense performed below its usual standards in three contests. Against the Ducks, the Buckeyes scored 28 points despite collecting 612 yards, and against the Wolverines, they scored 27 points with 458 yards (2021) and 23 points with 492 yards (2022).

Even in some of the wins, that side of the ball didn't look elite, or as Hartline may call, "explosive:" Tulsa and Nebraska in 2021, Penn State and Northwestern in 2022, for example.

"At times, we probably have felt maybe there was a lull here or there, when things were going on, even last year," Hartline said. "We’re trying to eliminate that. How to do that is what we’re diving into and what we’re trying to get done. That’s probably one thing that we’re looking to enhance.”

That is certainly a "Life is good, but it can be better" mindset, and I love that about Hartline and Ohio State's coaching staff. The expectation is not only for the Buckeyes to have the best unit in the country on both sides of the ball but also for the program to win the conference and national titles.

Teams that accomplish those feats don't have lulls, at least not prolonged ones, and if Hartline and Day's combined brain power can help Ohio State reach that level on offense, look out. The Buckeyes will be scary.

 WAIT, THE PANTHERS DID WHAT? Over the weekend, the Carolina Panthers shocked the football world when they traded a litany of draft picks and wide receiver DJ Moore to the Chicago Bears in exchange for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft.

Not only is that news cause for celebration for Justin Fields and his supporters, but it also increases the odds for C.J. Stroud to become the first player selected on April 27. The sense around the league from Carolina beat writer Joseph Person and ESPN insider Adam Schefter is that the Panthers targeted the Ohio State quarterback with the trade up following his performance at the NFL Scouting Combine.

To me, Stroud feels like a perfect fit for the Panthers.

Head coach Frank Reich is partial to larger quarterbacks and has worked with Peyton Manning, Phillip Rivers and Carson Wentz, among others, in the league. At 6-foot-3, 214 pounds, Stroud looks poised to be the latest in that line of signal-callers, considering the smaller stature of Bryce Young – Stroud's primary competitor to be taken No. 1 overall.

Beyond that, Stroud would have decent weapons around him, including running back Chuba Hubbard and wide receivers Laviska Shenault Jr., Terrace Marhsall Jr. and, of course, Ohio State legend C.J. Saunders, should the Panthers retain his contract. With Stroud's ability to elevate the level of play for those around him with his on and off-field intangibles, I would expect all of those players to take a step forward next season.

Stroud would also play in a division that would not require him to be perfect as a rookie to have a successful season, as neither the Buccaneers nor the Falcons have elite rosters, and the Saints will break in Derek Carr as a new quarterback.

That said, I like Stroud as the first player and quarterback off the board in 2023. And so do the sportsbooks, as his odds increased from +300 to -425 after the trade, while Young's odds decreased from -200 to +380. There are still 45 days until the draft, which means those lines can change but expect Stroud to be the lead man until proven otherwise.

 SONG OF THE DAY. "Evangeline" by Stephen Sanchez.

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