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Column: Ohio State isn’t going to fire Ryan Day, so what’s next?

Unless Gene Smith can pull Mike Vrabel from the NFL, is there really anybody better for the Buckeyes than Ryan Day?

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK
Matt Tamanini Matt Tamanini is the co-managing editor of Land-Grant Holy Land having joined the site in 2016.

I’m going to say something that is probably going to be a little bit controversial today: I’m not ready to say that Ryan Day should be fired as Ohio State’s head coach. I know that there are a lot of people in Buckeye Nation — and many here at Land-Grant Holy Land — who disagree vehemently, and honestly have been ready for such a drastic step long before yesterday’s failure in The Game.

While I think moving on from Day is probably still just a smidge premature, I stand by what I wrote in my postgame columns yesterday; I think that the issues with the Buckeyes in recent years have been every bit the result of the coaching staff’s shortcomings, up to and including the head coach.

I think that they have often missed the forest through the trees, opting to chase a reputation or style of play that just didn’t fit the team as constructed, rather than establishing and developing one that was natural for the collection of talent they had assembled. There’s no doubt that Ohio State has the skill to reach its goals, and I do not question for even a millisecond the dedication, hard work, or sacrifice of the players... or, to be fair, the coaches either.

Unfortunately, the coaches’ deficits have put the Buckeyes in a position that they haven’t been yet in this century, looking up at their rivals. In an article yesterday, I said, “Ohio State can, should, and must do better.” Not that athletic director Gene Smith is going to ask my opinion, but if he did, I would tell him that I am emotionally willing to give Day an opportunity to turn things around, but some things have to change.

I think that Day is a very good offensive coach and an even better human. As the CEO of this organization, I think that he has what is necessary to be successful, with perhaps one exception. However, he jumped a few rungs on the coaching ladder in becoming Ohio State’s head coach and he was clearly unprepared for some of the things that come with being in charge at this, or any, level.

When Day took over, we knew that he would be learning on the job to a certain degree, but the first two years of his tenure (thanks to early successes and a pandemic-impacted season) masked some of the deficiencies in his set of coaching skills that have clearly come home to roost in years three and four. First and foremost, I think that he lacks the killer, competitive personality that you seemingly have to have in order to win at the highest level.

I’ve often bemoaned the dregs of humanity that climb the ranks of the coaching profession by making being ultra-competitive their only personality trait. That is part of the reason that I have been drawn to Day because he seems to be a different type of coach who is thoughtful about things outside of his sport and how the demands of the game impact the young people entrusted to his care. But perhaps there needs to be some sort of middle ground.

Urban Meyer came to Columbus with that type of killer instinct, but it seemingly resulted in him making some pretty inexcusable decisions and likely led to the acceleration of his burnout and health issues. In fact, by the time he “retired,” Meyer had nearly completely lost that part of his personality; he was no longer innovating on offense and for years he declined to make the staffing changes that were painfully obvious to everybody watching.

Unfortunately, I think that Day began his career already at that point. His inability — whether due to time management or his specific personality — to keep up with the necessary changes on the offensive side of the ball have been glaringly obvious for multiple years now, and while he did the clearly necessary thing of replacing the majority of the defensive staff last season, he still seems to be hesitant to make needed changes if they will upset the apple cart.

That being typed, just like I believe that players can improve from one year to the next, I believe that coaches can do the same. However, unlike the hours upon hours in the weight room and running drills that it takes for players, coaches need to take the time to do the often painful work of self-evaluation to identify where they are failing and then do the research, critical thinking, and rehabilitation necessary to get better.

Besides, Luke Fickell is now the head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers, so who do you go out and get to take over if you fire Day? I’d imagine Smith would have to make Mike Vrabel the No. 1 target, but if he doesn’t want to leave the NFL, do you call Deion Sanders? Lane Kiffin? Matt Rhule? Lance Leipold? Jeff Saturday? Any one of the Stoops brothers? Promote Brian Hartline? Tony Alford? I don’t know at this point if any of those options are upgrades over the current coach.

So, what can Ryan Day and the Ohio State Buckeyes do to turn this quickly sinking ship around? I’m glad you asked Mr. Smith, because I have some suggestions:

1) Ryan Day Must give Up Play-Calling Duties

I’ve been beating this drum for nearly a year now, but there is never any reason for a head coach to be an offensive or defensive play caller beyond his first two or maybe three years on the job. I understand that when coming from a coordinator position, retaining play-calling responsibilities can help ease the transition, so, I’m ok with it at first. But, the further removed from play-calling being your primary job function you are, the more out-of-touch you naturally become with what it takes to do it well.

As a head coach, you inherently have myriad responsibilities and claims on your availability that prevent you from putting in the requisite time to self-study, watch opponents’ film, keep up with the latest trends and evolutions on your respective side of the ball. Instead, you are meeting with administrators, doing radio hits, overseeing an entire multi-million-dollar organization; there are just not enough hours in the day to do that job as well as you did when it was the most important thing on your plate.

Then there’s the fact that as the head coach, you are on the sideline during the game. And I know that there are plenty of play callers who aren’t head coaches and do their job from the sideline, but you will never convince me that being in a box, high above the field isn’t the right spot for someone calling plays. There is a reason that coaches use the All-22 to break down film; being in the box is the IRL equivalent, so that’s the view that a play caller should have, in my opinion.

Also, when you’re on the sideline, there are so many other distractions that can get in the way of being able to focus, prepare, and adjust for the next set of downs.

But it’s not just my hard-and-fast objections to head coaches as play callers that necessitate this change for the Buckeyes. Day has shown that there is a disconnect between what he thinks are the right plays in-game and what is actually working. As my colleague Gene Ross said in a column earlier today, Day seems to be lacking any type of play-calling flow; something that I don’t think was true when he was just the offensive coordinator or in his first year as head coach.

I mean, how many times have we seen the Buckeyes struggle to get a play call in this season only to have to take a delay of game penalty? How many times has OSU run a couple of plays that allowed them to move the ball at will only to have those concepts completely abandoned for the rest of the game for no discernable reason? With the absurd athletic downfield ability of the quarterback and receiving corps, why was Day so insistent on throwing the ball horizontally despite nearly never working?

I know that the raw numbers that Ohio State’s offense has put up this season are impressive and would be the envy of nearly every program in college football, but that means very little when they still pale in comparison to what they should have/could have been, and can never be replicated against the best teams on your schedule.

Ohio State has wasted incredible opportunities the past two seasons, especially in 2022 when there is no definitive best team in college football that stands head and shoulders above the rest. A national championship was there for the taking, but the head coach couldn’t get out of his own way to allow his team to grab it when they had the opportunity.

2) You Have to Fix the Secondary Via Recruiting and/or Transfer Portal ASAP

I am not going to besmirch the good name of J.J. McCarthy, especially after what he did to the Buckeyes yesterday, but I would venture to guess that 75% of the yards that he put up on Saturday were against air; OSU corners and safeties were continually and regularly burned and/or out of position making it woefully easy for the Wolverine QB to have a career day.

Now, I don’t know nearly enough about the Xs and Os of secondary play to accurately diagnose whether the issues that we’ve seen in the back half of the defense this season were because of poor play or ineffective coaching; though I would venture to guess it is some combination of both.

But, what I do know is that this team went into the season with an inexcusably tiny number of cornerbacks on its roster and as the season went on, the play of its safeties progressively and demonstrably got worse.

The Buckeyes opened fall camp with six whole scholarship cornerbacks; by the time camp wrapped up, they had three healthy scholarship cornerbacks. To make matters worse, the lack of depth at the position did not come as a surprise; Ohio State didn’t have a surprise transfer late in the summer; the team didn’t have someone retire for medical reasons right before camp, this was something that they knew about and actively chose not to address.

Day said that they didn’t want to dip into the transfer portal — especially at cornerback — because they were afraid it could upset the chemistry in the room; which by translation meant that they were afraid guys would transfer. And while I think they clearly made the right decision by not bringing in Eli Ricks, the coaching staff made the decision to sit pat in the personnel department and it ended up biting them in the ass.

I’m not sure if the diminishing returns of first-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ safety-driven defense were due to increasing competition, injury attrition, or guys who were recruited for a different system, but this offseason is when you have to start addressing whatever the root cause(s) was. I know that recruiting probably took a hit after yesterday’s debacle (and I hate to think that the Buckeyes might have missed their opportunity to flip Caleb Downs), but Ohio State still has a tremendous amount to offer highly-skilled secondary prospects coming from high school or the portal, and that needs to be a priority.

The secondary was not the only issue with the 2022 Buckeyes, nor against Michigan, but it has been the biggest problem for multiple seasons and was so again the rivalry game this weekend. In my novice opinion, much of that was on the coaches who continued to run man-coverage, Cover-0 schemes despite that being obviously the wrong strategy for this collection of defensive backs.

I know that there are some people who think that even after just a single year in Columbus, one or two defensive coaches should be shown the door, but I’m not there yet. The secondary was really bad under the previous regime and at times even showed promise this fall, but it is a far cry to the glory days of OSU’s #BIA era, and it needs to be one of the top priorities this offseason.

3) You’ve Gotta Figure Out What the Hell is Going on with These Injuries

I wrote about this a few weeks ago, and it remains true now; there is something very strange going on with Ohio State’s injuries over the last few seasons. As Gene points out in his article linked above, not one Buckeye who got injured this season ever returned to anything approaching full strength.

I have no degrees in kinesiology or physical therapy, so I have no real answers or insight here, but if there is something in Ohio State’s training regimen that is leading to them being especially prone to significant, lingering injuries, then that needs to be evaluated.

Maybe it was just bad luck this season, but it is curious that aside from multiple guys with broken hands, so many of the injuries were ligament strains that took far longer than normal to heal.

4) Bowl Practice Needs to Focus on Getting Young Players Much Needed Reps

Let me say this first and as clearly as possible, if Ohio State does not get a backdoor berth to the College Football Playoff and players want to sit out the bowl game in order to prepare for the NFL Draft, I 100% support them. They have given years of their lives to chase the possibility of potentially playing professional football, and if they decide to pursue the next step in that process rather than playing in what amounts to an exhibition game, I see no reason for anyone to complain about that.

In fact, if the Buckeyes end up in the Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, Cheez-It Bowl, Toilet Bowl, whatever, the entire process should be focused on getting young players as much practice and as many reps as possible for next season.

For the last three years, whether due to a shortened COVID season or just coaching prerogative, young players (especially at quarterback) have not gotten nearly enough in-game snaps as they should have in order to prepare them for eventually becoming starters, either due to injury or the matriculation of players ahead of them.

If the Buckeyes are not slotted into the CFP, then what remains of this season should be singularly focused on getting guys that will be counted upon next year as many reps as humanly possible. The coaches need to get young guys as prepared as possible for what lies ahead, and they need to give themselves enough opportunities to accurately evaluate their team in order to see what changes — be they scheme or personnel — need to happen during the offseason.

If that means playing both Kyle McCord and Devin Brown in the Rose Bowl so that you have additional data points for the eventual head-to-head competition, so be it. If that means throwing C.J. Hicks and Sonny Styles into first-quarter action on defense, bring it on. If that means drawing up some funky plays to see if they can help maximize your talent, let’s fucking go.

At 11-1, by all standards other than the ones set by the team and its coaching staff, this has been an objectively successful season. The Buckeyes should celebrate what, at worst, will be a New Year’s Six bowl game. But more importantly than a likely trip to Southern California, a bowl affords the staff and players a month of extra practices. They need to take advantage of that time in order to hit the ground running for the 2023 season.