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Ask LGHL: What’s going on with all of Ohio State’s injuries?

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NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Ohio State Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports

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Question: What’s going on with all of Ohio State’s injuries?

It will come as no surprise to anyone when I say that football is a physical, violent sport. And when the express goal of an entire team since the second the last season ended has been focused on increasing toughness, that physicality is only amplified. So it has become concerning to a number of Buckeye fans (and a handful of my esteemed LGHL colleagues) just how often Ohio State players are suffering injuries that take them out of games and/or practices in the first three games of the 2022 season.

Jaxon Smith-Njigba, TreVeyon Henderson, Julian Fleming, Mike Hall, Jordan Hancock, Cameron Brown, Kamryn Babb, Tanner McCalister, Chip Trayanum, Denzel Burke, Jantzen Dunn, and of course, Evan Pryor are all players who were pegged to be at least significant contributors to varying degrees this season that have missed — or are still missing — time due to injuries. Having a dozen guys from your projected rotation out at some point in the first three games is obviously not ideal, but save Pryor, none of them thus far appear to be season-enders; and to be honest, I kind of think that some of these injury-related absences might be both by design, and good for the future success of the team.

Let’s be honest, since Ryan Day took over as head coach, the Buckeyes have become more and more of a finesse team. Now, I don’t use that term as a pejorative, but rather as a descriptor of the type of football that they have played, especially on offense. Instead of relying on the hogmollies upfront who plow a path towards the end zone for power backs to run behind, Day’s offense has focused primarily on the skill position players in the passing game to put up historic point totals.

Now, this has not been a complete departure from the Urban Meyer era, which had quite a bit of finesse as well. This is also not to say that wide receivers aren’t physical players (especially given their blocking responsibilities in OSU’s offense) or that the Buckeye offensive line hasn’t been elite in pass pro over the past 3+ seasons. Instead, I mention this just to agree with pretty much everybody inside and outside of the Ohio State program that they just haven’t been tough enough in recent years to reach all of the goals that they set for themselves.

So, after getting pushed around last season by Oregon, TTUN, and even Utah in the Rose Bowl, it was gratifying to hear Day, his entire staff, and pretty much every player emphasize toughness during the offseason; even going so far as to bestow a new honor on seven players, naming them as Iron Buckeyes for having worked the hardest during the summer to better themselves in the weight room.

This renewed commitment to physicality seemed to pay off in the season opener as the Buckeye lines on both sides of the ball imposed their wills in the second half to hold Notre Dame scoreless and seal an important victory.

We’ve seen that this focus on toughness has paid dividends early this season, so how are we to account for all of the players that have missed time in the first three games for seemingly minor injuries? Isn’t part of being tough playing through pain?

Well, yes and no. With all due respect to Arkansas State and Toledo (and even Notre Dame), the Buckeyes weren’t really in a position to lose any of those games, so where is the advantage to playing guys who aren’t 100% if you don’t absolutely have to?

Would I love to have seen JSN get more snaps before the Big Ten season? Of course. Would the very thin, underperforming cornerbacks be helped by Jordan Hancock being in the mix? Absolutely. But Ohio State is 3-0 and, theoretically, by giving guys opportunities to rest as much as possible, that should allow them to play tougher when they do eventually re-enter the rotation.

Since taking over as coach, Day has become increasingly reticent about revealing player’s medical information to the public, so it is difficult to ever ascertain just how serious an injury actually is — although it does seem like Hancock is a bit further away from playing than some of the others. But, if we are to take the head coach at his word that the majority of these injuries are not long-term in nature and are perhaps more precautionary than anything else, to me, that shows another step in the maturation process of Ryan Day as a head coach.

Day wants his team to be tough and physical; great, we love that. But, part and parcel with that type of emphasis is the fact that players are going to get a bit more beaten up at times the tougher they play and the tougher they practice. So, from a coaching perspective, the staff needs to respond in kind and give the players a little extra leeway to let their bodies heal as much as possible.

Even though Day said on Thursday that they haven’t changed the number of practices per week in full pads from previous seasons, players and coaches have talked about there being more good-on-good practices this year, which obviously will add to the intensity, physicality, and (yes) toughness.

So, if OSU’s top guys are focusing on being tougher in practice and working against their first-team counterparts, they are obviously going to get beat more than they would if they were primarily taking it easy against the practice squad. So, I think it is probably pretty reasonable to assume that Day is keeping guys off of the field more often this year than he has before, strictly because of how important toughness is to the team this year.

While being tough against Arkansas State and Toledo is all well and good, it really matters against the likes of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan State, and even more so against their rival, in a potential Big Ten Championship Game, and the College Football Playoff should they get there.

So, it is incumbent upon Day to adjust his coaching and playing time philosophies in response to this new, tough emphasis. I firmly believe that a lot of the guys who have missed time — whether that’s from in-game injuries or being wholly inactive for a given week — could have, and would have, played in previous seasons. But understanding the cumulative toll that being tough and physical has on a player’s body, Day has decided to play it safe whenever the opportunity allows.

Based on his comments earlier in the week, it is clear that Day respects Wisconsin and the rigors that come with playing in the Big Ten, and I think he is responding in kind.

Reports from practice on Wednesday night were that Burke did not participate, but was at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center in street clothes, not appearing to be significantly injured. The cornerback room is already thin, even when healthy, with only six scholarship players on the roster. With Hancock still not practicing according to Day, and Burke and Cameron Brown suffering injuries during camp, it makes sense to let a guy who has struggled physically, take the second full-pads practice of the week off in order to rest up for what could be a slobber-knocker on Saturday against Wisconsin.

Burke has clearly underperformed early in this season, but it doesn’t do anyone any good to run him through a gauntlet during the week, only to have him at less than his best on game day.

I also think that Day’s new philosophy when it comes to keeping guys out will have a positive impact later in the season as well. By instilling the idea of toughness during the offseason, in camp, and in the non-conference slate, the Buckeyes have set the tone for the type of team that they want to be, and there is no doubt that they will continue to emphasize that as the season progresses.

But, by not over-extending players that aren’t 100%, Day and company are allowing those athletes to play tougher later in the year when it matters the most.

So, without actual injury information — which Day has proven that he has no intention of giving to the public or the media — I think that the potentially concerning influx of injuries for the Buckeyes is less about players’ inability to get back on the field, and more about the coach’s big-picture plan to keep them on the field when their toughness is needed most... or at least I hope so.