Despite painful losses in the last two games, the 2023 Ohio State football team was still largely a recognizable version of what Buckeye teams are supposed to look like, but the similarities are increasingly fading. With each year under Ryan Day’s direction, it feels like the program is running out a Xeroxed copy of a Xeroxed copy of a Xeroxed copy of the type of team that we all know Ohio State is capable of; you can tell what it’s supposed to be, but it’s getting harder and harder to make out the specifics.
With each passing season, it feels like the Buckeyes are getting further away from the crystal-clear vision of a program that prides itself on creativity, development, and aggression. With each new disappointing campaign, things are getting progressively cloudy around the edges so that it won’t be long before the product on the field no longer even resembles the best Buckeye teams of the recent past.
Day has one more shot to fix the shortcomings of his program, or his time in Columbus will be up. He’s not going to be fired before the 2024 season; Athletic Director Gene Smith is retiring in June and he’s not going to replace the most important employee in the athletic department before the new AD takes over — especially when Smith and Day are such close friends.
So, with the possibility of Day being fired off the table, there absolutely needs to be substantive and substantial changes made to the program immediately; like before the end of January for some, and before the end of December for others.
If he chooses to sit pat and not undertake any significant restructuring heading into the 2024 season, then in my opinion, Day does not understand or deserve the job as Ohio State’s head football coach. In the last three to four years, he has allowed an increasingly rapid erosion of many of the gains built up by Jim Tressell and Urban Meyer over the previous two decades, effectively returning the program to where it was under mid-tenure John Cooper.
Friday night’s performance by Day and his team (primarily the offense) was an embarrassment to the standard that the OSU program has set in the 21st Century, and while there are many programs that would be thrilled by an 11-2 season, Ohio State simply should not be one of them, especially when those losses come in the final two games of the season against teams that the Buckeyes should be able to beat.
Day might not be in danger of losing his job in the coming days or weeks, but his seat should be approaching Dante-levels of heat in 2024, and he needs to approach every decision as if it could be the one to make or break his job, or whoever replaces Smith behind the AD’s desk is going to be dialing up Mike Vrable, Lance Leipold, Kalen DeBoer, and many other potential replacements in 12 months’ time.
The Coaching Staff Needs to Be Scrubbed of Urban Meyer’s Guys
The last decade of Ohio State football has been marred by ebbs and flows of coaching staff nepotism that has, at times, had disastrous results. From Urban Meyer hiring his best man to coach linebackers even though he was wildly unqualified to Ryan Day hiring Meyer’s son-in-law (who played wide receiver in a triple-option offense) to be his quarterbacks coach.
Now, I don’t want to disparage the guys on the current staff who Meyer brought in, because they have all contributed significantly to the success of the Ohio State program since arriving in Columbus and I am grateful and truly thank them for their service. However, their individual and collective effectiveness has waned in recent years, and while some of them are still doing above-average jobs, I think it is time for Day to bring in new voices, new ideas, and new perspectives to position groups that have become seemingly stagnant.
I’ll start with the afore-referenced Corey Dennis, Meyer’s son-in-law who theoretically coaches the Buckeye quarterbacks. Now, let’s be honest, Dennis coaches the Buckeyes backup quarterbacks, because Day coaches the starter (which is another problem). The lack of progression and preparation that we saw from Kyle McCord, Devin Brown, and Lincoln Kienholz shows that Dennis is not really doing that much. With two years backing up C.J. Stroud, if Dennis was up to the task required of his job, McCord would have been better prepared to start this season. The same is true for Brown and Kienholz to a lesser degree, because they haven’t been in Columbus as long, but they should have been more prepared when given opportunities having spent considerable time under Dennis’ tutelage.
Now, I admit that recruits and their families really seem to love Dennis, so again, I think that he has done a decent job as the QB coach, but I don’t think he’s done enough to keep his job with the flames so quickly engulfing quarterback room at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
Dennis’ contract expires at the end of January, and I think that Day should put in as many calls as he has to find Dennis a soft place to land, because he shouldn’t be offering him a contract to return to the OSU staff. In my opinion, Day needs to find a veteran, experienced QB coach to come in and completely take over that room, and potentially one with play-calling experience (more on this later).
In my opinion, Day is far too involved in the intricate machinations of the offense. Of course, he should be involved in the game-planning and positional coaching, and should have veto power over every play call, but I’ve been writing for over two years that Day needs to embrace being Ohio State Football’s CEO and give up play calling, and I think that also applies to being the lead coach when it comes to the team’s starting quarterback as well.
Then there’s running back coach Tony Alford. I really like Tony. He seems like a legitimately good dude and his have had some major highlights over the years, including TreVeyon Henderson, but it seems like they are increasingly missing out on major talents and his commits have a nasty habit of flipping to Miami in the final weeks before Signing Day.
There has also been a concerning lack of vision from his players in recent seasons. This might have more to do with Day’s degrading play-calling abilities or the lack of consistent run blocking by the offensive line, but for the bulk of the last two seasons, OSU running backs have struggled to find and hit the proper holes. Henderson seemingly got back into that rhythm as his health improved later this year, but even healthy, most of the other backs still struggled.
So, while I would wish him well and root for him wherever Alford ended up next, I think Day needs to bring in a new running backs coach for 2024.
Another guy who I believe has significantly contributed to the inconsistent running game is longtime strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti. Under Meyer, Coach Mick was practically the 1a mascot of the program behind only Brutus Buckeye, but with conversations about toughness and injuries dominating much of the last three seasons, I believe that there are serious questions to be had about what is happening with the Strength and Conditioning program.
Now, I do not have a degree in kinesiology — hell, I can't even spell kinesiology without spellcheck — but it seems that if a team continually gets beat in the trenches, especially when they have size and athleticism advantages, that would indicate that there is something wrong with their strength, speed, and agility; all of which falls under the purview of Marotti.
The Buckeyes have been beaten on both the offensive and defensive lines far too many times in recent years for a team that recruits as well as Ohio State does. While that can’t all be attributed to Marrotti, some of it has to be, especially when the team also seems to have been suffering through a rash of injuries that never seem to go away.
Maybe it’s just me, or maybe players are just being more conscientious about what their bodies are telling them, but it feels like over the last three to four seasons, OSU players aren’t coming back from injuries like we are being led to believe they should. Far too often guys who get hurt, stay hurt.
That could just be a coincidence, but to my non-medically trained eye, it seems like even seemingly mild ligament and soft-tissue injuries turn into debilitating problems more often than not, including some that we have been told would be just a few weeks that have stretched into season-ending ailments.
Is that because of Marotti’s program? I don’t know, but I think that it is probably time for a change anyway. Day needs to find a strength and conditioning coach who can incorporate the most modern techniques, philosophies, and treatments. As college football changes, Ohio State needs to move away from the idea that once a player arrives on campus, he needs to immediately add 25-30 pounds of muscle, regardless of position.
Now, this brings us to the final Urban Meyer guy remaining on the Buckeye coaching staff, Larry Johnson. Look, he’s an absolute legend and if any OSU assistant coach deserves Hall of Fame status, it’s him. I have long championed what LJ means to this program and I believe that a lot of what we think of as the modern-day Silver Bullets is because of his defensive lines.
So, unlike the other three Meyer holdovers, I don’t believe that Day needs to move on from Johnson immediately. Instead, I think that they need to announce a transition plan sometime in January, before the February Signing Day for the 2024 recruiting cycle.
We saw on the early Signing Day earlier this month just how important LJ continues to be when it comes to landing certain high-profile players — although he’s lost his share big-time prospects as well. So, I am of the opinion that 2024 should be the 71-year-old Johnson’s final year coaching at Ohio State. Allow him time to work with the players who signed to play for him, but also give the current players and recruits time to get used to the idea that he will be gone after next season.
I also believe that Day needs to get Johnson’s eventual replacement on staff now to aid in the transition. Whether that is as an analyst or G.A. or as a full-time assistant in the extra coaching spot created by firing special teams coordinator Parker Fleming (surprise, that’s going to be on my list too), doesn’t really matter to me. Allow LJ to have his swansong, allow him to get his flowers on a farewell tour, but also find someone who might be more schematically willing to compromise with defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.
Now, there is one other coach on Day’s staff who was initially hired by Meyer, but since Brian Hartline was a Buckeye long before Meyer made him a coach, I am not counting him as a “Meyer Guy,” so he can stay; you’re welcome Brian.
Additionally, I also think that keeping Ohio State’s General Manager for Player Personnel Mark Pantoni would probably be pretty wise. He is the guy who has pioneered his entire industry and the Buckeyes routinely have one of the highest-rated recruiting classes in the country, despite recruiting against teams in much more hospitable climates, so clearly Pantoni is good at his job.
If Day wants to revisit the offensive line coaching position, I wouldn’t be mad at that either, but because that group generally takes the longest to develop, I am willing to grant Justin Frye one more year of grace.
If Special Teams Are Going to Be That Bad, Why Have a Special Teams Coordinator?
I’m not going to bemoan this one because everybody on the Budkeye beat has been talking about it lately (although, we were on this long before anybody else), but Parker Fleming needs to be relieved of his duties before the new year. He is eating up an incredibly valuable coaching position to turn out a unit that is honestly embarrassing, Jesse Mirco’s impressive punting performance in the Cotton Bowl notwithstanding.
Day already wasted an entire month that a replacement coach could have been recruiting, but instead, Fleming was occupying that spot and spent the weeks leading up to the Early Signing Period making home visits to long snappers. The most logical move would be to simply not have a full-time special teams coordinator, allowing that coaching positions to be assigned to the defense.
Most people are suggesting that current graduate assistant James Laurinaitis should be prompted to linebackers coach; currently, Knowles holds that position in addition to his DC duties. I would be 100% on board with this if it happens, but I also wouldn’t be mad if Day used that spot to bring on Johnson’s eventual replacement for a transition year.
Either way, Fleming simply must go, and his coaching spot must be returned to the defense. Let rising star and current tight ends coach Keenan Bailey also coordinate the special teams or maybe divvy up the ST responsibilities to a handful of guys and call it a day; hell, it can’t get much worse than it has been the last few seasons, so where’s the harm?
Can Brian Hartline Call Plays? I Don’t Know, but someone Other Than Ryan Day Needs To Do It.
Following last season, Ryan Day teased us all by saying that he was contemplating letting then-newly named offensive coordinator Brian Hartline call plays. They tested it out during spring practice and the spring game, and either the wide receiver whisperer stunk or Day had trouble letting go, because the idea was essentially never broached again.
As fans, we admittedly have nearly no concrete evidence that Hartline can be a consistently effective play-caller, but unfortunately, we are in possession of an ever-increasing mountain of evidence that the days of Day being an aggressive and innovative play-caller have passed him by.
Whether that is because he hasn’t been able to keep up with the natural evolution of college defenses, or because as the head coach, Day simply doesn’t have the ability to put in the time necessary to be elite at calling plays, or because he has somehow psyched himself out of being able to do it, I don’t know. But he simply doesn’t have that skill set anymore, and he needs to find someone who does before it’s too late.
As I wrote about in the articles above, a year ago, I assumed that Justin Frye would be named offensive coordinator instead of Hartline, because he has more experience and has called plays before. I also thought that his run-focused background would balance well with Day’s pass-first philosophy.
But, perhaps in an effort to pay him enough money to keep him from looking for work elsewhere, Day named Hartline the OC and heir apparent to holding the playcalling sticks. Now, I honestly don’t care if Hartline calls plays, if Frye calls plays, or even if Bailey calls plays, but someone other than Ryan Day has to call plays in 2024.
As I mentioned above, in my opinion, Day should bring in an experienced quarterback coach, and if he can find one that also has called plays before, even better. I know that might ruffle some feathers for Hartline, but Day can’t be concerned about feelings right now. If he doesn’t get all (or at least most) of his decisions right over the next few weeks, he very well might be looking for a new job a year from now.
Embrace the Portal
Following the regular season, Ohio State had 14 players enter the transfer portal, but they have yet to add one to their roster. As I wrote on Thursday, because so many players had yet to announce their intentions for 2024, the Buckeyes were in a bit of a precarious position when it came to roster management. They obviously would prefer to keep as many starters in the fold for next year as possible, but not having definitive answers (unless they do, but they haven’t been made public yet) makes it tough to know which — and how many — holes need to be filled through the portal.
As I’m writing this missive, just a few hours after the embarrassing Cotton Bowl loss, we still don't have any details on the draft status of players like Denzel Burke, Emeka Egbuka, Mike Hall Jr., TreVeyon Henderson, Lathan Ransom, Jack Sawyer, J.T. Tuimoloau, and Tyleik Williams.
Coming into Friday’s bowl game, the assumption was that all of those guys were leaning towards returning, except for Hall. Does that change after such a demoralizing loss? I sure hope not. Obviously who stays and who goes will impact how many roster spots the Buckeye have available and what they need to get via the portal, but until those declarations are made, here is what I think Day’s grocery list should be.
- A quarterback: We have all heard the rumors surrounding former Kansas State QB Will Howard (and even Washington State’s Cameron Ward before him). I’m not sure that either of those guys are upgrades over Brown or Keinholz, but they desperately need an experienced veteran in the room.
- Offensive line: Anybody and everybody who would be even a modest upgrade over the current lot has to be of the utmost importance.
- Land Tackett Curtis or another major linebacker: There was a time when all of the recruiting world thought that Tackett Curtis would sign with Ohio State out of high school. He chose to go to USC instead, and despite being considered a major part of the Trojans’ defensive future, the 2023 high four-star player is now in the portal. Cody Simon is already slotted into one of the starting linebacker spots, but after Knowles talked about finding ways to get C.J. Hicks on the field in 2024 (and then watching his two poor snaps against Mizzou), I am not convinced that it will be at LB; maybe at the Jack/Leo position, but I don’t think it’s at linebacker.
- Defensive line: If everybody comes back on the d-line, then this is less important, but I still think that they need to add some depth across the line.
- Running back: Of course, if Henderson decides to head to the NFL (and who could blame him after that piss-poor offensive line performance on Friday?), then you have to find someone in the portal who can share carries with Dallan Hayden and James Peoples in the fall.
While the Buckeyes missed out on most of the guys who entered the portal following the regular season, as bowl games end, there will inevitably be more players entering, I just hope for OSU’s sake (and the sake of all of us fans) that there are some legitimate difference-makers available who want to come and play in Columbus.
Make no mistake about it, Ryan Day is coaching for his job during the 2024 season, and that starts now. The decisions that he makes over the next month will shape how his team plays next fall, and if he doesn’t approach each and every one of them with the utmost seriousness and intensity, whoever takes over as AD needs to find someone willing to make the tough decisions to get Ohio State back to the pinnacle of the sport where its recruiting, spending, facilities, and tradition warrant it to be.