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Column: The future at Ohio State depends on innovation, upcoming hires

Ryan Day has the mind to keep modernizing Ohio State, but he can’t do it alone.

Graphic by Patrick Mayhorn
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Ohio State is going to have to change under Ryan Day to survive. That’s a pretty jarring statement, given that there obviously wasn’t too much intrinsically wrong with a program that has won 47 games in the last four seasons, lost just six times, won two Big Ten titles and is looking to add a third bowl win in that time frame tomorrow against the Washington Huskies. That certainly doesn’t look like a program that has to change to survive, even as it endures a coaching transition from Urban Meyer to Day.

It isn’t necessarily even the fault of Ohio State that it needs to change to survive. It isn’t a indictment of one of the best programs in the country, just a natural machination of college football. To survive and continue to succeed under the new management, Ohio State needs to move with the times, to look towards teams like Oklahoma, Alabama and Clemson, and not just adopt the new norm, but improve upon it. Ohio State needs to find itself on the cutting edge of innovation.

Now, again, this isn’t to say that Ohio State isn’t already heading that way. Day is as forward-thinking of an offensive mind in the country, and we saw Ohio State deploy one of the most devastating offenses in the nation this year, led by Dwayne Haskins and an excellent receiving corps. However, Day’s air raid influenced, mesh-heavy offense isn’t enough. The Buckeyes need to push even further in 2019 and beyond, on both sides of the ball, and that’ll start in the coming weeks as we learn who Ohio State’s new offensive coordinator and possibly quarterback will be following the Rose Bowl.

While the quarterback spot is a lot more cut and dry (if Justin Fields comes to Ohio State he should start, regardless of how much Tate Martell posts his highlights at 2 a.m.), that coordinator job is super interesting, and possibly crucial to Day’s success. The rumor, from several places, seems to be that Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich is the top candidate for Day; and 247 Sports is already reporting that he is leaving Oklahoma State, even if his destination is not yet confirmed.

On the surface level, that makes a lot of sense, and seems to hit all of the necessary points on an imaginary “transitioning to full Big 12 offense” checklist. Yurcich has coached some of the best offenses in the country in the past six seasons at Oklahoma State, and produced top offensive talent like Tyreek Hill (kinda), James Washington, Mason Rudolph, Chris Carson, Justice Hill, Marcell Ateman, Jalen McCleskey, and Tylan Wallace, among others. Oklahoma State has consistently lit up the scoreboard under Yurcich, running the kind of offense — at least in the passing game — that Day seemingly wants to run and that Ohio State seemingly needs to run.

However, Oklahoma State’s offense was also awesome under Todd Monken in 2011 and 2012. It was awesome under Dana Holgorsen in 2010. The last time Oklahoma State didn’t drop at least 40 points per game in the season was in 2009 under Gunter Brewer, who promptly left to coach under the famously likable and easy to work under Houston Nutt. Ole Miss averaged 16 points and won two games that season.

That’s all to say, essentially, that Oklahoma State’s offense has always been pretty great under Mike Gundy. It was great with almost every coordinator he popped in there, which leads me to believe that it may not be so much Yurcich as it is Gundy to thank for the explosiveness in Stillwater for the past few years.

Does that mean Yurcich couldn’t still be good in Columbus? Absolutely not. Coming from a strong system doesn’t condemn you to forever being nothing but a result of that system, just look at Larry Fedora, Holgorsen and Monken, all of whom found at least moderate success after leaving the nest. But, it does put Ohio State in a spot where they could be hiring the next version of Tim Beck, a coach that picked up clout because of his associates, that goes on to falter when given any real responsibility to install the system of his former employer.

For a program as large as Ohio State, and for a first year head coach that needs to move his offense even further into the future to compete with the high flying offenses at Oklahoma, Clemson and Alabama (lmao Nick Saban’s offense is progressive now), Yurcich feels uninspired. It feels like Day, or Gene Smith, or whomever is making that call just googled “good offense college football” and hired the OC from the first school that popped up. It feels lazy.

So, who is the answer if not Yurcich? Well, it’s hard to say without getting purely speculative, because unlike Urban Meyer, we really don’t know how Ryan Day hires. We don’t know who he has connections to, what he wants in a coach, or honestly, what he’s looking for in an offensive style. We’ve got a good idea in some respects, based on what his offense looked like this past year, but there’s nothing to assure us that he wants to move further down that road.

Does he go to his connections in the NFL and look for one of the league’s many young quarterback gurus, like Kansas City’s (and Northwestern legend) Mike Kafka, or Chicago’s Dave Ragone? Does he keep it in college football and try to pick up a rising star like Graham Harrell, or an established name like, well, Yurcich? Is he willing to look in the lower levels, at guys like Sam Houston State’s K.C. Keeler — who’s Texas ties and air raid style would be likely very appealing — or Davidson’s Scott Abel?

It’s impossible to say at this point, because Day hasn’t tipped his hand at all, and doesn’t seem to have any plans to until he announces his choice, likely in the coming weeks. What we can do, without getting too speculative, is talk objectively about what that innovation I mentioned earlier could or would look like.

The future of football, at least until the next innovation, is in play-action. That sounds a little funny, because, well, play-action is not, in any way, a new concept to football. Teams have been faking handoffs for decades, out of every imaginable formation, generally to great success.

However, the style of play-action that I’m talking about, and the kind taking the college football world by storm, has nothing to do with under center snaps, and looks a whole lot different from what Craig Krenzel was doing back in 2002 under Jim Tressel. The style of play-action I’m talking about is immensely modernized, wide open, and spearheaded by Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley at the college level, and both the Los Angeles Rams’ Sean McVay and Kansas City Chiefs’ Andy Reid in the NFL.

That style of play action is a numbers game. As outlined in this excellent Pro Football Weekly column, McVay doesn’t call runs if the numbers aren’t in his team’s favor. He doesn’t force his play calls, he takes what the defense gives him, and uses whatever it is that the defense is giving him to create easy throws for his quarterback. The same is true for Riley, whose simplified, wide open passing attack has helped create back-to-back Heisman winners in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray.

Along with taking what the defense gives you and exploiting those weaknesses that the defense creates for you, Oklahoma’s offense utilizes misdirection better than just about anybody. Every passing play is designed to draw eyes away from at least one receiver, creating an open pass for the quarterback. Many plays have a fake to a halfback, or receiver on a sweep. Lincoln Riley’s realization that read option concepts, counter concepts, and play action concepts can all be combined has created the most impressive offensive scheme in the history of college football.

This play action and misdirection revolution isn’t just a fringe, air raid-thing though. Oklahoma, Los Angeles, and Kansas City aren’t alone, as the concepts have crept into the playbooks of Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Georgia, and countless other college football teams. Hell, the Browns are on the cutting edge of NFL offense because of Freddie Kitchens’ play-action heavy offense. The Browns!

Ohio State’s offense, while it uses quite a few air raid concepts, and actually saw more passes thrown this year than Oklahoma did, hasn’t really implemented this type of play-action scheme yet. It felt, at times, like the added threat of Dwayne Haskins pulling a handoff back and throwing the ball would’ve really opened up the rushing game. Hell, it would’ve helped Haskins too, even though he really didn’t need it. It would certainly help Fields, Tate Martell, Matthew Baldwin, or whomever takes the snaps next year at quarterback.

None of this will happen without Ryan Day actively pushing for innovation though. The brilliant offensive mind needs to prove just how smart he is in year one.