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Ohio State begins a new ‘Day’ with high hopes

Ohio State head coach Ryan Day responds to a question during the Big Ten Conference NCAA college football media days Thursday, July 18, 2019, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

COLUMBUS — All eyes are on Ryan Day as he steps into the role as architect of one of America’s top college football programs.

Day, 40, looked full of vigor and vitality earlier this month as he led Ohio State onto the Scarlet and Gray turf at “The Woody” for the Buckeyes’ first official practice of the year.

He’d been there before.

Last August, Day temporarily held the reins during parts of August and September while then-head coach Urban Meyer sat out due to a school-issued suspension related to the Zach Smith situation. In so doing, Day guided OSU to victories against Oregon State, Rutgers and 15th-ranked TCU.

As he opened camp, Day reflected on his short, but productive tenure as Buckeye boss and said that experience, no question, aided in his preparation for what he’d face in 2019.

“Big time. Big time,” he said as he spoke to reporters following the first workout earlier this month. “Now this is the first time since I’ve become head coach where this is the second time I’ve done something.

“We had the meeting last night. That was the second time. We did that last year. First practice on the field. We did that last year.

“Good to draw upon. Check your notes, things you said. That helps, because, again, it’s not the first time doing it.”

While there were many uncertainties and distractions swirling about “The Woody” last preseason there’s no doubt now this is Day’s team. He officially became Ohio State’s 25th head coach on Jan. 2, but unofficially the night before when Meyer placed the whistle around his neck following the Buckeyes’ victory in the Rose Bowl.

Meyer’s retirement and the subsequent announcement of day’s promotion to head coach took place about a month prior to the Rose Bowl. There, Day credited Meyer for creating something special at OSU and promised to keep the Buckeyes’ tradition of winning alive.

“We are all are part of something special here at Ohio State,” he said. “And the culture that Urban Meyer has created here is strong. My pledge to the players is that our staff is going to give you every opportunity to maximize yourself as a football player and as a student in establishing your career after football.”

Meyer might be gone from the football staff at Ohio State, but his presence certainly isn’t gone from the university. Although he’s taken a job with FOX to be part of its weekly Saturday pregame show, Meyer also accepted an invitation from OSU athletic director Gene Smith to become an associate athletic director at the university. So, he’s still around campus, and continues to be a mentor to Day.

In fact, Meyer has been a steady presence at Ohio State practices this month, something Day encourages.

“He’s been a resource for me, for everybody here,” he said. “Still involved in terms of being part of the university, everything he does there. Right across the street if we need advice. Me, being a first-time head coach, unbelievable resource that way. He’s been great.”

While this is Day’s first head coaching job, he’s hardly a newbie in Columbus.

Day has been on the Ohio State staff since 2017 and, since arriving, has enamored everyone with his offensive knowledge and penchant for getting the best out of the team’s quarterbacks.

Thought by many to be Meyer’s replacement, if Meyer ever decided to move on, Day’s head-coaching chops were applauded during his interim stint last September. And when he stepped back into his OC role, the wins kept coming as the Buckeyes won a Big Ten title and scored 40 or more points five times the rest of the season, including the last two games of the regular season and the Big Ten title game.

The Buckeyes finished 13-1, with the lone blemish a crushing 49-20 loss at Purdue before a national TV audience that, ultimately, kept the Buckeyes out of the College Football Playoff.

Ohio State’s non-conference slate in 2019 isn’t as daunting as last year’s — there’s no TCU on it — and all of those games will take place in the friendly confines of Ohio Stadium.

The Buckeyes open Saturday vs. Florida Atlantic before welcoming Cincinnati and former OSU player and coach Luke Fickell the week after. Ohio State opens Big Ten play at Indiana on Sept. 14 before returning home the following week to close out the non-conference portion of its schedule against in-state foe Miami.

The meat of the conference slate begins a week later with a road trip to Nebraska, followed by a home game vs. Michigan State. Following a bye week, the Buckeyes visit Northwestern. That’s followed by a home date against Wisconsin.

The final month of the season sees games against Maryland, Rutgers, Penn State and the season finale at rival Michigan.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh’s charges return 13 starters from a 10-3 squad and that was enough for the media to give the Wolverines the nod in the Big Ten East, with Ohio State second. The preseason coaches poll has Ohio State fifth, with Michigan seventh.

The Wolverines’ coaching staff will have a different look to it this fall after Day plucked two of Harbaugh’s defensive minds in the offseason — Greg Mattison and Al Washington. Mattison is Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator, while Washington is in charge of linebackers. Day and Washington worked together at Boston College.

“I’ve known Coach Day and know the program and tradition, but my mom and dad are 20 minutes away,” Washington said when he was introduced earlier this year. “I’ve got a 3-year-old, a 1-year-old. My wife went here. A lot of who I am is from obviously the 614 and Columbus and my father playing here. I think those things definitely were major contributors to coming, that unique blend of everything.”

Others newcomers on the staff include — Mike Yurich (passing game coordinator/QBs), Jeff Hafley (co-defensive coordinator/secondary) and Matt Barnes (assistant secondary/special teams coordinator). They join holdovers Larry Johnson (associate head coach/defensive line), Kevin Wilson (offensive coordinator/tight ends), Tony Alford (assistant head coach/running backs), Greg Studrawa (offensive line) and Brian Hartline (wide receivers), who replaced Smith in that role last fall.

West Liberty alum Mickey Marotti continues in his role as assistant AD/head of football sports performance. St. Clairsville native Adam Stewart is the team’s head physical therapist.

“I am really excited with this foundation of coaches who will mentor, coach and prepare in all areas the young men in our program,” Day said earlier this year. “I am obviously very comfortable with the coaches who have been here and helped us win consecutive Big Ten championships and bowl games, and I am thrilled they want to continue to help this program pursue championships and achievements.

“I am also confident the new assistant coaches will make an immediate impact on this program. I’m really looking forward to working with this staff these next couple months shaping the program and developing our players for the 2019 season.”

Day’s staff will be tasked with tutoring players asked to replace the production of the 19 letterwinners and nine starters lost. OSU had nine players selected in April’s NFL draft, while four more signed free agent deals.

Nick Bosa went No. 2 overall to San Francisco, while quarterback Dwayne Haskins was selected 15th overall by Washington. Also selected were Parris Campbell, Dre’mont Jones, Michael Jordan, Terry McLaurin, Isaiah Prince, Kendall Sheffield and Mike Weber. Dante Booker, Johnnie Dixon, Demetrius Knox and Malcolm Pridgeon all hooked on as free agents.

Haskins left OSU after a sophomore campaign that saw him set 28 school records and seven conference marks, including single-season passing yards (4,831), TD passes (50) and total offensive yards (4.939).

A Heisman Trophy finalist, Haskins, who sat behind J.T. Barrett his first two seasons, was the Big 10 Offensive Player of the Year.

When Haskins decided to leave, the battle to replace him began. Tate Martell, who completed 23 passes last year, announced he was transferring to Miami (Fla.) in January. Then, Justin Fields (6-3, 225), who played in 12 games as a freshman for Georgia in 2018 announced he was transferring in to Columbus.

That set the stage for the spring game, where Fields and Matthew Baldwin (6-3, 200), a four-star prospect from Texas, got most of the snaps.

Although Day said at his Aug. 14 presser that no final decision has been made about the starter, all signs point to Fields being under center when the Buckeyes take the field Saturday.

“The guys are competing really, really well,” Day told reporters. “I think, you know, Justin is practicing at a high level now and had a nice couple really good days here.

“I think the guys are getting more and more reps under their belt. “I do think Justin has taken a stride the last couple of days and last week. He’s moving the team nicely. Taking care of the ball better. Throwing the ball on time. Improvement’s there and leadership is improving.”

Former West Virginia quarterback Chris Chugunov (6-1, 203), who had two starts for the Mountaineers in 2017, figures into the mix, too. As camp has moved along, Day said his confidence in the QBs as a unite has grown.

“He had a sprained ankle,” Day said of Chugunov, “so he missed a couple of practices. but yeah, he’s battling. He wants to play. He’s not here just to kind of just take up a spot. I think his leadership’s been good. He’s been throwing the ball well, and I’ve been impressed with his approach and how he came into this camp.”

With Weber gone, J.K. Dobbins (5-10, 212) will look to expand on a career that’s began with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, the first player in school history to do so. He had 1,053 last fall and 10 TDs.

As camp began, Day said Dobbins appeared to be locked in.

“Seems to me like he’s very serious right now,” Day said as camp opened. “I believe he lost 4 percent body fat when you look at him, which is significant. That means he really worked hard this summer.”

Others in the mix in the backfield are senior Demario McCall (5-9, 193) and sophomore Master Teague (5-11, 215), who’s been dinged up this preseason. Both combined for just 25 carries last year.

Fifth-year senior K.J. Hill (6-0, 195) is Ohio State’s top returning receiver. He caught 70 passes last season for 885 yards and six touchdowns. He’s also caught a pass in 34 straight games dating back to 2016.

From there, Day is looking for contributions from seniors Austin Mack (6-2, 215) and Binjimen Victor (6-4, 205), along with sophomore Chris Olave (6-1, 185), who averaged 18.1 yards per catch the final three games of the season.

“Chris is practicing right now at a starter level for us,” Day said in reference to Mack fighting preseason injuries. “That’s been good for us.”

Ohio State returns a pair of dependable tight ends in senior Luke Farrell 6-6, 250) and Rashod Berry (6-4, 255). Sophomore Jeremy Ruckert (6-5, 250) and junior Jake Hausmann (6-4, 245) continue to gain experience.

The offensive line has been a point of emphasis in the offseason as four starters were lost — Prince (RT), Knox (RG), Jordan (C) and Pridgeon (LG). Junior Thayer Munford (6-6, 310, LT) is the lone returning starter.

“I had a good feeling we would be deep this year and I haven’t bee disappointed,” Studrawa said. “I have four tackles that could start anywhere in this league … (they’re) as good as ever. We’re building the depth to where it should be.”

Senior Branden Bowen (6-7, 315) returns healthy after missing 2018 and sophomore Wyatt Davis started the final two games.

Others eyeing playing time on the line include — senior Kevin Woidke (6-6, 3-5) junior Gavin Cupp (6-4, 308) and sophomore Josh Myers (6-5, 310).

Senior Jonathan Cooper (6-4, 257 and junior Chase Young (6-5, 265) return at ends and anchor Ohio State’s defensive line. Also back are defensive tackles Robert “BB” Landers (6-1, 285) and Davon Hamilton (6-4, 310), both fifth-year seniors.

Others in the mix along the defensive front include — sophomores Tyreke Smith (6-4, 267), Tyler Friday (6-3, 260), Taron Vincent (6-2, 293) and Tommy Togial (6-2, 300).

A trio of linebackers return in senior Malik Harrison (6-3, 240) and juniors Tuf Borland (6-1, 232) and Pete Werner (6-3, 239). They combined for 206 stops last fall.

Two safeties are back in the fold — senior Jordan Fuller (6-2, 205) and junior Brendon White (6-2, 215). White earned defensive MVP honors in the Rose Bowl.

Fifth-year senior Damon Arnette Jr. (6-0, 195) anchors the list of cornerbacks. Junior Jeffrey Okudah (6-1, 200) and sophomore Shaun Wade (6-1, 194) solidify the unit.

“The thing that I know what we are going to do is we are going to be an aggressive defense that runs to the football and everybody on our defense believes that, and that’s why I’m so proud of these kids right now,” Mattison said during the middle of preseason workouts.

Ohio State is solid in punting with the return of junior Drue Chrisman (6-3, 220). He dropped 27 punts inside the 20 last season and 17 inside the 10. Junior Blake Haubell (6-3, 230) returns to handle the placekicking duties.

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