As in any given year, Ohio State enters the 2023 season with aspirations of winning a national title. This year's Buckeye squad is full of talent from top to bottom, but there remains a number of question marks heading into the season opener against Indiana this coming Saturday. While none of these issues will likely plague Ryan Day’s group against an overmatched Hoosiers team in Week 1, there is a trio of issues right now that, in my opinion, could lead to Ohio State falling short of its ultimate goal this year.
1. Offensive Line
As far as concern level goes, I’m actually probably more confident in this Ohio State offensive line than most people. That being said, it is incredibly frustrating that the only reason the Buckeyes even have question marks surrounding the starting O-line this year is a two-fold problem of the coaching staff’s own doing.
For one, and it is a point not worth belaboring as it has already been beaten into the ground, but keeping Greg Studrawa on staff for as long as he was is inexcusable. He was a bad recruiter, seemingly a bad developer of talent — especially at tackle, where most of the good players Ohio State has produced at the position were already five-stars or high four-stars when they got to campus — and left the Buckeyes barren in terms of depth. Justin Frye is a great hire, and better in both areas of the job than Studrawa, but he can only do so much with the room he inherited.
The second, however, is not utilizing the talent you do have to the best of its abilities. There is no reason why Matthew Jones, formerly the No. 1 center in the country in the 2018 class, didn’t cross-train at center this offseason. With both tackle and guard spots solidified, as well as guard/tackle Tegra Tshabola looking very impressive in camp by all accounts, you could’ve gotten your best five players on the field with Josh Simmons and Josh Fryar at the tackles, Donovan Jackson and Tshabola at the guards (I like Tshabola better as a guard than as a tackle, fwiw) and then Jones at center.
Instead, they didn’t even attempt to let Jones play some center, and now the middle of your offensive line is the biggest non-QB question mark on the whole depth chart to start the season. Is it possible that expected starter Carson Hinzman does admirably in the role? Absolutely. Still, there’s no reason you couldn’t have at least tried Jones at center and let the rest play itself out. It’s not like Jones needed the extra reps at guard after being a multi-year starter at the position. Now you risk potentially not having your best possible offensive line on the field.
2. Larry Johnson vs. Jim Knowles
This is honestly the most frustrating concern for me personally, and it is that your defensive coordinator and your defensive line coach do not see eye-to-eye, and as a result, it is hamstringing the entire unit.
I could be wrong, but I get the impression Larry Johnson is not a fan of the “Jack” position in Jim Knowles’ defense… pic.twitter.com/bBXCWhwwE9— Marcus Hartman (@marcushartman) August 17, 2023
The “Jack” position, an edge-rusher/linebacker hybrid, was a staple of Knowles’ defense at Oklahoma State, and part of what made his scheme so effective. Knowles came to Ohio State with the idea that he would continue to use that scheme with even more talented players to achieve even greater results. Unfortunately, the defensive line coach working under him not only refuses to incorporate that Jack position into his unit but is outwardly mocking the idea to the media.
This is indefensible. Knowles was brought in to fix what was a bad Ohio State defense several years over and should be allowed to run whatever scheme he wants as the defensive coordinator. Larry Johnson is obviously a legend, but his unit has been lacking for several years now. Despite his reputation, he should not have the authority to overrule the defensive coordinator, especially with largely poor results from his position group ever since Chase Young left. To have two of your defensive coaches outwardly fighting against one another is just plain stupid, and makes both guys’ jobs even harder.
The Buckeyes have some talented players on the roster that could be really effectively used in that Jack position, especially guys like C.J. Hicks and Mitchell Melton. Coach LJ should not be allowed to stick to his guns and continue to play four-down linemen in a game that is rapidly evolving. I’m not advocating for Day to fire Johnson, but it could soon be time for a changing of the guard with the on-field play not nearly up to par with Ohio State’s standards. It’s hard enough to win the battle versus opposing teams, you shouldn’t also be battling yourselves.
3. Ryan Day’s stubbornness
Listen, we all saw this coming, and at the end of the day, it makes sense. Despite talks of Brian Hartline taking over play-calling duties for Ohio State this season, Ryan Day has backtracked a bit and now says that he will still be in charge of the majority of the play-calling to start the season.
“Brian [Hartline’s] going to certainly at times make some calls, and we’re going to discuss it in between series, but I think early, I’ll do the majority of it,” Day said. “Brian is going to have an opportunity to call it as well as time goes on, and I think the thing for Brian is that he’s done an excellent job of helping organize the offense. He’s done a good job of installing for the first time in this preseason in offense. That’s a big part of being a coordinator.”
To his credit, it is tough to knock Day as an offensive mind. There are times in which he overthinks it to a frustrating degree, but Ohio State’s offense under Day has consistently been one of the best in the country. In addition, Hartline doesn’t have any experience coordinating an offense, so to start out the year with Day still holding the play sheet while Hartline learns the ropes doesn’t sound like the end of the world. Even if Hartline isn’t calling the plays himself but does have some more room for input, it should lead to even more efficiency for the Buckeyes’ offense.
My big concern here is that Day hasn’t quite learned from his mistakes of the past. It is simply too hard to be the de facto general manager of one of the sport’s biggest brands, the primary coach of the quarterback position, an elite recruiter on the trail, and call plays on top of all that. It is spreading yourself far too thin, and it is going to lead to slip-ups when you cannot afford them. There is a reason that there has not been a head coach who calls his own plays to win a national title since Jimbo Fisher with Florida State in 2013. It is too much to put on your own plate, even if you design a great offense like Day does.
On top of that, just as a quick aside, while Day calls a good offense, he doesn’t have a great feel for taking his starters out in blowouts. Ohio State won seven games by four or more touchdowns last season, and yet Kyle McCord and Devin Brown combined to attempt just 20 passes — all by McCord. Not only are you opening up the chance for starters to get injured the longer you leave them in games that have already been decided, but you are also taking away important developmental reps from the players you will need in the coming seasons. This is an area Day will have to improve on moving forward.